By Susan J. Campbell
It is hard to believe but July 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of TELSTAR I. This was the first active communications satellite and its placement into orbit is considered the birth of modern multimedia global communications.
Developed and built by Bell Labs with funding from AT&T in conjunction with NASA, TELSTAR I, which was a 34 inch sphere, was a true marvel of its time. It transformed communications. It rightfully is considered not just one of the Alcatel-Lucent research arm’s greatest historical achievements, but as President John F. Kennedy noted at the time it really was a turning point in the history of communications.
It is something worthy of a significant celebration.
The new era TELSTAR I NASA ushered in we now take for granted — high-speed (for the time) data communications, real-time global telephone service and TV broadcasting.
In a Bell Labs statement, Jeong Kim, President, noted:
“With TELSTAR and its successors, the world was made a smaller place, as billions of people around the world had instant access to news, sports and entertainment. The phrase “live via satellite” became part of the common vernacular. At the time, few people would have believed that 50 years later you could actually talk to your house or car, or predicted that children would play video games with other children 10,000 miles away.”
The success of the launch was verified when on July 13. The first transatlantic conversation took place between AT&T President Eugene McNeely and Jacques Marette, French Communications Minister.
A few other TELSTAR I firsts are noteworthy:
- News items were exchanged between newsmen in New York and London on July 19 demonstrating a successfully transatlantic telephone connection
- A major league baseball game played in the U.S. was transmitted to the Eurovision network to 18 nations on July 23
- All three U.S. networks carried the Eurovision program on July 24, showing scenes of the Coliseum in Rome, Big Ben in London and Champs Elysees in Paris.
While these firsts were impressive at the time, it was the foundation it provided for modern communications that had potential impacts beyond expectations at the time. And now, thanks to the launch of subsequent satellites bearing the TELSTAR name over the years, we enjoy instant global communications, Web conferencing, multi-national broadcasting, data communications, and so much more without barriers or delays.
To mark the celebration of the TELSTAR anniversary, Bell Labs and Alcatel-Lucent are holding a luncheon and ceremony that will examine past success, current endeavors and proposed opportunities to build on the success of the TELSTAR program. The impact of the last 50 years will be examined, as well as the opportunities that exist with the challenges in today’s communications.
Call it coincidence, but it should be noted that on July 5, an Ariane 5 rocket lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana carrying the The Ka-band EchoStar XVII. This is satellite will be the platform for HughesNet Gen4—Hughes' fourth-generation satellite Internet service. The launch demonstrates the ongoing importance of communications satellites in enabling universal broadband for a connected world.
It also serves as an important reminder of the significance TELSTAR I. At the time, space was the final frontier. The scientific breakthroughs Bell Labs was able to incorporate literally turned science fiction into reality, and in the process transformed the world.