Eye in the sky 

26 June 2014 tbs.pm/4848

Richard Dimbleby and Walter Cronkite discuss Telstar on CBS in New York

Richard Dimbleby and Walter Cronkite discuss Telstar on CBS in New York

We take satellite television for granted these days. If we haven’t got a receiving dish on our own wall, we can see one of our neighbours’ dishes nearby. The technology and the convenience of satellite communication are just normal.

In the 1950s, it was very different. Sputnik in 1957 had proven that satellite communication was possible, at least from the point of view of a satellite transmitting a “ping” radio signal that could be received back on Earth. Later launches by both the Soviets and the Americans produced satellites capable of sending data back to ground stations.

By 1959, satellites were capable of sending still pictures back to Earth. The developed world, genuinely interested in space technology, looked on in awe as the Soviet Luna 3 craft sent back images of the never-before-seen far side of Earth’s moon (the moon is ‘locked’ by our planet’s gravity into only showing us one face).

At the dawn of the 1960s, both superpowers were watching each other from space with various reconnaissance satellites. The main race had become one to put a person in orbit, which was achieved by the Soviets with Vostok 1 in April 1961, as Yuri Gagarin made the a single orbit of our planet.

The space programme was part of the Cold War, as both powers vied to prove their opposite systems were the greatest and most advanced. Nevertheless, there was real money to be made for the capitalist system – not from manned flight but from telecommunications.

Richard Dimbleby and Joan Marsden before going on air in the first programme using 'Early Bird'

Richard Dimbleby and Joan Marsden before going on air in the first programme using ‘Early Bird’

In August 1960, NASA launched in to low Earth orbit what was effectively a very shiny balloon – Echo 1A. The Mylar coating reflected most things projected at it – light, but also telecommunications and television signals. This “passive” method of broadcasting was too fragile to provide a permanent system, but the point had been proved: television, radio and telephone communication between continents was possible, useful and profitable.

On 10 July 1962, NASA launched AT&T’s Telstar 1. This satellite was the first to have a “transponder” – it was “active” rather than “passive”, receiving data and deliberately rebroadcasting it. Telstar was not “geosynchronous”. It sat low in Earth’s orbit, making a circuit of the planet every two and half hours. For transatlantic broadcasting, this produced a 20 minute window in which telephone calls or recorded or live television could be passed – in one direction only.

The first public demonstration, on 23 July 1962, was from the United States to Europe, with a baseball game, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and John F Kennedy all appearing. When the direction was switched, US views saw Richard Dimbleby and the Eiffel Tower.

The satellite, which still orbits above us to this day, was functionally destroyed in November 1962 when it came into contact with radiation from nuclear weapons testing carried out by both superpowers – itself proving a point to each nation’s military.

Telstar 1 was replaced by Telstar 2 in May 1963. It was this satellite that provided the scant pictures and reports to European broadcasters of the assassination of President Kennedy in November of that year – again in the 20 minute window every 2½ hours.

In August 1964, NASA launched a geostationary satellite, Syncom 3. This provided television communication between the USA and Japan – just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. The pictures received from Japan in the US were then sent on to another satellite, the non-geosyncronous Relay 1, providing Europe with recorded highlights (and occasional live feeds) of the games.

By April 1965, a ‘permanent’ geostationary link between North America and Europe appeared with the launch of Intelsat I, better known by its nickname “Early Bird”. A commercial enterprise, it proved popular and profitable for owners COMSAT. More geostationary satellites followed, including Intelsat 2-2 and 2-3 and NASA’s ATS-1.

BBC producer Aubrey Singer came up with the idea of linking the world by satellite for one global broadcast. The BBC and the European Broadcasting Union were interested, and the show “Our World” was born. At the last minute, as a spoiler, members of Intervision, the Eastern Bloc version of Eurovision, pulled out of the broadcast as a political stunt. Nevertheless, it went ahead.

A year later, the Olympic Games were staged in Mexico City. With satellites now almost “normal”, it was still a wonder to viewers to be able to watch live pictures from such a distance. Both the BBC and the ITV companies carried the Olympics in those days, and both organisations made a lot of the satellite connection.

By the start of the 1970s, the stage was set for satellite communication to be taken completely for granted. By the end of that decade, the available spectrum was being divided up for each nation to launch Direct To Home broadcasts. By the 1980s, these became a reality.

You Say

1 response to this article

John Lush 21 August 2014 at 7:42 am

I remember that the first TV transmission via Telstar 1 was to be received simultaneously at Goonhilly Downs and Pleumeur-Boudou in France. I was watching the UK rebroadcast and the picture was way down in the noise. However it appeared that the French reception was fine. (I think the BBC may have switched to a terrestrial feed from France, but I can’t really remember).

It turned out the the British convention for defining the sense (clockwise or anticlockwise) of circular polarisation was different from the US and, presumably, France. A quick rework of the polariser in the antenna feed was all that was required, and all was good the following night.

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