— AT&T’s Telstar 1 gained international fame its first day in orbit and opened the public’s eyes to the possibilities of satellite communications, though it would later become a dead end in the formation of what now is a multibillion-dollar industry. Telstar 1 launched from , , aboard a Thor- rocket that placed it in a medium Earth orbit. It transmitted the first intercontinental TV broadcast and the first long distance call via satellite that same day.
There were communications satellites before Telstar 1: NASA’s AT&T-built balloon-like Echo was launched in August 1960; and the U.S. Defense Department’s Courier 1B was launched in October 1960. But Telstar 1 was the first active communications satellite, which amplified the signal it received and sent it back to Earth, according to the Loral Skynet Web site. Loral acquired the AT&T Telstar group, Skynet, in 1997, to form Loral Skynet. The Echo satellite passively bounced weakened intercontinental television and telephone signals back to Earth, and Courier 1B merely sent out a prerecorded message from then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In its first broadcast, Telstar 1 televised a flag positioned above an AT&T Earth station in , , while playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and later that day transmitted a phone call between U.S. Vice President Lyndon Johnson in and AT&T Chairman Fred Kappel in .
In the early 1960s U.S. President John F. Kennedy proposed establishing a worldwide communications satellite system, said Joseph Pelton, director of the space and advanced communications satellite organization at the
Sen. Robert Kerr (R-Okla.) sponsored legislation that would have made the system a private initiative, while Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) sponsored a separate bill for a public effort, Pelton said during a June 25 phone interview.
The final legislation, which Kennedy helped push through, was a compromise, which established a commercial organization that included government appointees and was approved to handle international agreements with government oversight.
Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act in August 1962.
Next, the decision on whether to use medium Earth or geosynchronous orbiting satellites to provide the global communications system had to be made. While reaching medium Earth orbit had become routine, it was extremely difficult to place a satellite into geosynchronous orbit at that time, Pelton said.
AT&T proposed lofting 50 to 100 Telstar-type satellites to medium Earth orbit for worldwide coverage, and installing about 25 support stations on the ground, Pelton said.
AT&T was not overly concerned about cost constraints and would have passed the high cost of its system on to its customers, Pelton said.
Built by AT&T’s Bell Laboratories under the leadership of John Pierce, who also led Echo’s development, Telstar 1 and Telstar 2, which launched May 7, 1963, tested out the proposed constellation concept, Pelton said.
Telstar made a huge impact and “got a great deal of publicity,” Pelton said. A 1962 U.S. Information Agency poll showed that, in the United Kingdom was better known than Sputnik had been in 1957, according to the NASA History Web site.
Despite its success, “[Telstar] was not a slam dunk, if you will, at this point in time,” Pelton said.
While putting a satellite into geosynchronous orbit was much more difficult, a geosynchronous constellation would require only three satellites for global coverage at a much lower cost, Pelton said. Geosynchronous satellites also do not require as much ground support since they remain in a constant position in the sky and therefore do not need to be tracked by multiple ground stations.
In addition to cost concerns, there was international pressure, especially from and , to adopt a geosynchronous system instead of a medium Earth orbiting constellation, Pelton said.
The international satellite organization, Syncom 3, the first successful geosynchronous communications satellite, was launched in August 1964, Pelton said., was established by negotiations between and European governments in 1964. It was created to establish and manage the global satellite communications system, and under its guidance communications satellite technology exploded.
Ultimately, Intelsat eschewed AT&T’s Telstar system in favor of geosynchronous satellites.
While it was in service Telstar 1 broadcast plays, music concerts, baseball games and news reports.