On a hot summer night in 1962, millions of Americans were watching a run-of-the-channel CBS television drama about a Scotland Yard detective when an announcer broke in: “We interrupt this program…. The British are ready to bounce a program off Telstar.”
On their screens viewers saw an unpretentious communications control room with three men seated at a plain table. Without introduction, one of them spoke up: “On my right is that dour Scot, Robert White,” and, as he waved his hand towards the other man, “John Bray, who is in charge of our planning in the space field…. It is half-past-three in the morning. Good luck.”
On this understated note, the first experiment in intercontinental communications by space satellite ended. The video images were being transmitted from the Goonhilly Downs space antenna in the south of England to a similar antenna in Andover, Maine and then relayed to the CBS network. It was the beginning of an enterprise that has since transformed the technology, economics and politics of global communications.
Telstar was the first active-repeater satellite, one that could provide reliable voice, data and video messages between two points on earth. It was a primitive machine, a “comsat” capable of handling only 60 simultaneous phone conversations or one television transmission. The Andover earth station weighed 380 tons and was 177 feet long. Thirty years later, international satellites were routinely capable of transmitting over 100,000 phone calls and dozens of TV transmissions into antennas as small as a pie plate. Developed by AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, Telstar was the first success in a wide-ranging American research and development effort in the 1950s to exploit the prospects of space communications. The