I just spoke with a journalist about the Echo 1 communications satellite test that took place in August 1960. It’s interesting that this month marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the world’s first communication satellite, but it is an anniversary that passing with modest recollection. Why? It seems that this may have been because this was a very unique satellite, not at all what we have come to expect from communication satellite technology. Echo 1 was an experiment, and little more; an inflated sphere that ground stations could bounce a signal off.
Launched on August 12, 1960, Echo 1was designed to test the concept of a communication satellite. The idea for communication satellites really gained credence in 1945 when science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke posited that three satellites placed in geosynchronous (stationary) orbit 22,240 miles above the equator could be used to bounce radio waves around the globe. The idea thrilled many scientists and with the dawning of the space age NASA began an effort to make it a reality.
Echo 1’s design was remarkably simple: a reflective sphere 100 feet in diameter that bounced signals directed at it from one location on Earth to another. For several weeks ground stations experimented with the sphere, easily visible from the ground as it passed overhead, by bouncing signals from one station on the Earth to another. And it was successful. It worked between points in America, and it worked transatlantically.
The Echo satellite test posed a unique technical challenge. It was in essence a balloon sent into orbit folded flat and then inflated in space. Inflation had to be accomplished carefully to keep the sphere from exploding, and at least one did so during a test in a vacuum chamber.
Difficulties abounded in trying to launch an inflatable, passive satellite, but tests were successful on August 12, 1960, and thereafter.
At the same time active-repeater communications satellites were being developed, the first of which was the Bell Telephone Laboratories Telstar project. Beginning in 1962, several generations of Telstars, as well as other types of communications satellites in Earth orbit, helped to make Clarke’s idea of real-time global communications a reality by the mid-1960s.
Communications satellites became ubiquitous thereafter. Seeing the enormous commercial potential of space-based communications, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, creating a Communication Satellite Corporation (Comsat) with ownership divided fifty/fifty between the general public and the telecommunications corporations to manage global satellite communications for the United States.
Near the same time U.S. leaders recognized the possibility of competition and participated in the establishment of the International Telecommunication Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT), with Comsat as manager, to provide an international communication satellite system. Founded by nineteen nations, with eventual membership of well over a hundred, it was initially very much an American organization, with the United States controlling sixty‑one percent of the voting authority and all the technology. It oversaw the development of Intelsat 1 in 1965, the first of what would later become a global communications satellite network. With this satellite system in orbit the world became a far different place. Within a few years telephone circuits increased from five hundred to thousands and live television coverage of events anywhere in the world became commonplace.
One could make the case that the most significant change to the life of the ordinary Earthling coming from our ability to fly in space is global instantaneous telecommunications. This is made possible by the constellations of communications satellites in Earth orbit. Without them, there would be at best a limited Internet, real time news and sports coverage worldwide, and a host of other capabilities that have come to dominate our lives.
Whether our lives would be significantly better or worse if this capability did not exist is problematic, but I think it would be quite different. Some of us might well think that a positive development, though I doubt most would want to go back to problematic global communication. The point, of course, is that the past did not have to develop in the way that it did, and that there is evidence to suggest that the larger space program pushed technological development in certain paths that might have not been followed otherwise, both for good and ill. It remains to be seen how historians might seek to look at the overall impact of satellite communications on American lifestyles a century from now.
This transformation began, albeit in a small way, with the launch of Echo 1 in August 1960. It accelerated thereafter and we live in a different world because of instantaneous global telecommunications.