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Television penetrated the average American life with astonishing speed. At the end of World War II, just a half percent of U.S. households had a TV set; by 1962, that number had increased to 90 percent. But no matter how many TVs we bought and broadcasting stations we constructed, the reach of broadcast signals over long distances was still limited by a basic physical problem: the curvature of the earth.
Are you the kind of person who needs to know what keeps satellites from plummeting to the Earth in a big, fiery ball? Then you need to watch this one-minute video, where Ask Smithsonian host Eric Schulze gives us the lowdown on what-in-the-name-of-science makes those satellites stay up.
Video: Ask Smithsonian: What Keeps Satellites From Falling Out of the Sky?
“The TV signal, which is a radio wave signal, travels in straight lines,” says Martin Collins, a curator at the Air and Space Museum. “So if you’re having to overcome the curvature of the earth, signals can only go so far before they need to be picked up by an antenna and repeated.”
All this changed with the launch of a rocket in Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, exactly 50 years ago, today. The rocket carried the Telstar communications satellite, the first ever spacecraft that served to actively relay communications signals between distant points on earth. “In essence, it meant putting a relay station high up in orbit, instead of on the ground,” Collins says. ”From a technical perspective, the satellite was a nifty solution to a basic problem of physics.”
The spacecraft allowed broadcasting stations in both the U.S. and Europe to send signals up into space, bounce them off the satellite, and have them received across the Atlantic nearly instantaneously, revolutionizing mass communications between the continents. The device could also be used for phone calls and even faxes. To celebrate the achievement, authorities conducted an international demonstration of Telstar’s capabilities. “There was an exchange of programs—first from the United States to Europe, and then from Europe to the U.S.” says Collins. The American broadcast included a press conference with President Kennedy, a baseball game and images of famous places such as the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.
Telstar, an experimental satellite, successfully relayed signals for just under a year before various technical problems forced it offline. But it played a crucial role in shaping the development of subsequent satellites and helping us understand how we could conduct communications through space. The satellite employed solid state technology, provided information about how electronics functioned in the radiation of the Van Allen Belt and assisted in developing techniques to establish contact between ground antennae and spacecraft.
The launch was also tremendously valuable for an American psyche rattled by the early Soviet dominance of space during the Cold War. “Telstar was an event that signaled U.S. achievement in an area that the Soviets themselves had not done,” Collins says. “The perception was that the Soviets were ahead in human space flight, and they were creating new accomplishments faster than the U.S., but Telstar represented an aspect of space flight that the U.S. was clearly first in.” The fact that the satellite was developed primarily by AT&T, a private firm, further served to demonstrate the power of private industry, as compared to the U.S.S.R.’s state-run model.
To celebrate the golden anniversary of the achievement, the Air and Space Museum—which is home to a backup duplicate of Telstar, produced along with the actual satellite launched—is hosting a day of special events on Thursday, July 12. A live satellite connection will be established with the Telecommunications Museum in Pleumeur-Bodou, France, which was the site of the original French ground antenna. The broadcast will be followed by a special symposium of space historians and industry experts, including Martin Collins, and will feature original footage from the 1962 broadcast. The event is open to the public, and will be available as a live webcast for those outside Washington.
In addition to the museum’s special events, there’s yet another way to celebrate Telstar’s legacy: by looking to the skies. Although the satellite was ultimately disabled by radiation in 1963, it has remained in orbit ever since, reliably circling the earth every 2.5 hours. Modern satellites have outstripped Telstar’s capabilities by several orders of magnitude, but the relic lives on as a physical reminder of our first successful foray into space communications.