|Telstar, A History
By John R. Pierce
Telstar, A History. By John R. Pierce
from SMEC Vintage Electrics 1990
At the time of Echo and Telstar, Frederick Kappel, a large, determined,
direct and good-natured man was Chairman of the Board of AT&T. I had
first met Kappel a few years earlier, when he was president of Western
At that time work on psychology and related matters
was in my division. Someone at AT&T doubted that this was a useful
field of research for Bell Labs. Fred Kappel was appointed head of a
committee that spent three days with us investigating the matter. He and
the others listened to a sequence of presentations and talked with us.
There must have been a favorable report, for work on psychology continued.
I saw Kappel occasionally after that. Sometimes it
was at the annual "Cabinet" meetings, held for a few days at
some quiet, remote location, which all executive directors and those of
higher rank attended.
One meeting I do remember very distinctly. I
encountered Kappel in the halls of the Murray Hill laboratories. He
stopped me and said with a broad smile, "Look what you've got me
into, John." What I had got him into was giving enthusiastic talks
about satellite communication.
Echo had created a sensation in the nation, and
within the Bell System as well. The public relations department had made
of it everything they could; indeed, someone said that they had
"taken it away from NASA". Everyone was convinced that satellite
communication would be a part of the Bell System's future, and that the
next step would be to launch an active satellite.
In the research department we had started work toward
an active satellite at a modest level even before the launch of Echo. This
work followed a satellite design set down by Roy Tillotson on August 24,
1959. The proposed satellite would have been at an altitude of 2,500
miles. It would have had an essentially omnidirectional radiation pattern,
and would have had a transmitter power of one watt. The plan was to use
broad-band frequency modulation, with a hundred-megahertz bandwidth. This
would allow the transmission of one TV channel or of several hundred
telephone channels. When, much later, I showed Tillotson's Memorandum to a
man in the development area during work on Telstar, he was surprised at
how close the satellite Tillotson had designed was to Telstar itself.
The research department of Bell Laboratories was
small, around a tenth of the whole Laboratories, and those who could
devote their time to satellite work were few. The enthusiasm for producing
an effective active satellite was great. In the summer of 1960 the primary
responsibility for an active satellite experiment was transferred to one
of the vice-presidential areas of development, headed by McDavitt, a calm
and able man. A. C. Dickieson was the executive director of the division
responsible for the work, and Gene (E. F.) O'Neill was the project
engineer for what became Telstar.
Telstar involved problems of a scope and magnitude
far beyond any we had faced in Echo. The transistor and the
traveling-wave tube were key components, but they had to survive a rocket
launch and survive for a long time in space. The space background that the
Whippany laboratories had acquired through their military work,
especially, work on the Nike missile, was invaluable to Telstar.
Because of past relations with the Bell System,
including participation in transatlantic telephone cable projects, the
British and French telephone organizations (government operated) were
anxious to cooperate. Indeed, they eventually built at their own expense
earth stations which received and transmitted the first transatlantic
television programs sent via Telstar.
In its many departments with a wide range of
expertise, Bell Laboratories had the technology and manpower needed to
build a reliable active satellite. AT&T was anxious to provide the
funds, and could make arrangements with foreign telephone administrations.
The sticky problem was to find a way to get an active satellite launched.
NASA was the obvious source of a launch vehicle. On
November 4, 1958 a group of Bell Laboratories people visited NASA
headquarters in Washington. I was there chiefly because of my work on
Echo. The other Bell Laboratories people included, I believe, Julius
Molnar, executive vice president of Bell Labs, and people from the
We had what seemed to me at the time a very friendly
talk with Hugh L. Dryden, then deputy administrator of NASA, Robert
Seamans, Jr., associate administrator, and Leonard Jaffe, director of
communications systems at NASA. Jaffe was the man we had dealt with in the
Echo project. I had known Dryden for some time through the National
Academy of Sciences; I think that he was Home Secretary at that time. I
believe that Seamans was new to me, though I have come to know him well
At this meeting we were told that NASA planned to
contract for its own experimental satellite (Relay), and we gathered that
it would be a good idea to bid on Relay, even though AT&T was prepared
to bear the full cost of the satellite and the launching.
Naively, I told my Bell Laboratories colleagues,
"They're trying to help us," and I urged bidding on the NASA
project. But, why should NASA try to help Bell Labs? The responsibility of
NASA was NASA. Also, Bell Labs had got more credit for Echo than NASA
itself had. Dryden was a wonderful man, and so is Seamans. Bidding on
Relay may have been a good idea. My conviction that NASA was primarily
"trying to help us" was naive.
Various companies came forward with proposals for
launching the AT&T satellite for a fee, but NASA really controlled the
boosters. Thus, when a request for a proposal on Relay was finally
received on January 4, 1961, AT&T decided to bid on it, even though
this meant a substantial change in plans in order to meet NASA
specifications, including a change in the microwave frequencies to be
used. AT&T put in its bid on Relay on March 20, 1961. On May 18 it was
announced that the contract had gone to RCA (Radio Corporation of
among piles of paper is tricky. Relay was built and launched after Telstar,
and so received comparatively little notice. In my judgment, it was
inferior to Telstar in design and construction.
AT&T was firmly committed to carrying Telstar
through, but how to get it launched? When V. S. Chernov of the Lebedev
Institute in Moscow visited Bell Laboratories in April of 1961, Rudi
Kompfner and I asked if we couldn't get a Soviet booster to launch Telstar.
He said that he considered the idea impractical. He himself couldn't even
take a skindiving outfit back to the Soviet Union from the United States.
A very senior Bell Labs man visited an Air Force
installation (I forget which one), with the idea that the Air Force might
supply a launch vehicle. He was told that they already had the
communication satellite problem well in hand-they had devised a scheme by
means of which two satellites could be nested together and launched at the
same time. This at a time when designing and building a satellite that
would have a high probability of surviving and functioning in space was
the major problem!
Some of the most competent and astute technical men I
have met have been Air Force officers, but the Air Force also has its
dreamers who confuse sketches and the encouragement of those in the
aerospace industry with reality. Unfortunately, the Bell Labs man was
taken in for the moment. Nothing came of this but criticism by outsiders
who knew better.
Negotiations with NASA continued, though I knew
nothing of the details. Finally, on July 27, 1961 NASA agreed to supply,
AT&T with a booster. The price was $3.5 million per launch, a
worldwide license to use all inventions in the satellite field made during
the course of the work, and a right to license anyone else to use these
inventions. We felt quite confident that Telstar would succeed. The
Western Electric guidance equipment that was used had been successful in
many launchings. There was more experience with the Thor Delta booster
(later called the Delta vehicle) than there had been when Echo was
launched. We felt sure that the satellite would function properly in
On the evening of July 10, 1962 there were reporters
and guests at Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy), at Andover, Maine, where
a new ground terminal had been built, in Washington, D.C., and at Crawford
Hill, where various research department people, myself included, were
ready to view Telstar transmissions using the old Echo receiving terminal.
And, the English terminal at Goonhilly Downs and the French terminal at
Pleumeur Badeau were ready and waiting.
With two exceptions, everything worked perfectly. One
was a little trouble with transmission on the ground. The other was that
the British definition of right-hand and lefthand polarization was
contrary to that used by the rest of the world. Initially their ground
station was set up to receive the wrong polariza
tion. Transmission between France and the United States was excellent.
Care in planning and construction had insured success.
The confusion about polarization was soon corrected.
On July 23, transmission via Telstar gave the world its very first live
international television program. Viewers in the United States and Europe
saw pickups from Britain, France and the US. A US Information Agency poll
showed that in the weeks after this event, 82% of the people in Britain
could identify Telstar by name, 79% knew that it was an American
achievement and 59% had seen the program beamed from the United States. In
a message broadcast to the people of the Commonwealth on Christmas day,
1962, Queen Elizabeth referred to Telstar as "the invisible focus of
a million eyes."
In the view of AT&T and the telephone
administrations of Britain and France, Telstar was a first successful step
to an early commercial satellite link between the United States and
Europe. A higher power intervened. On August 31, 1962 Congress passed, and
the president signed, the Communications Satellite Act, which gave a new
organization, COMSAT (Communications Satellite Corporation) an eternal
monopoly of United States participation in international communication
The Communication Satellite Act legislated the Bell
System out of international satellite communication. AT&T eventually
entered domestic satellite communication, which the Act did not cover. The
Act legislated me out of satellite work abruptly and finally. This made me
Satellite communication was an interlude in my
technical life. Its roots were as much in my science-fiction background as
in my earlier work at Bell Labs, though my research on traveling-wave
tubes was important to Telstar and subsequent active satellites, and the
Holmdel Laboratory, which was in my division, provided just the sort of
expertise necessary to Echo and some aspects of Telstar.
My work on satellites led to speaking engagements,
honorary degrees and various awards. Yet the years of my active concern
were few. Despite the fact that I talked and wrote about satellites in
1954 and 1955, I would date my actual participation in satellite work from
the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 to the passage of the
Communications Satellite Act on August 1, 1962.
Though I have told almost everything about my direct
involvement, I find that I can't leave the subject without saying
Commercial satellite communication came into being
with the launching by COMSAT of Intelsat 1, or Early Bird on April 6,
1965. Unlike Telstar, Early Bird was a synchronous satellite, hanging
22,300 miles above one spot on the earth's surface as the earth rotated
and the satellite revolved around it in the same direction. Early Bird was
built by Hughes Aircraft, and in design
it was very close to the Hughes Syncom 2, the very first synchronous
communication satellite, that NASA launched on July 26, 1963. How was it
that Syncom, a synchronous satellite, was a colossal success while Advent,
a proposed synchronous satellite, had been a dismal failure?
The success of Syncom was made possible by a design
so ingenious and simple that this synchronous satellite, which had an
active station-keeping and attitude-control system, was lighter than
Telstar, which did not. This, and some advances in propulsion, made it
possible for the Thor Delta vehicle which had put Telstar in a lower orbit
to launch Syncom into a much higher synchronous orbit.
I am somewhat embarrassed to recount that Harold
Rosen and his colleagues Don Williams and Tom Hudspeth visited the Holmdel
Laboratory in 1960, when we had Tillotson's proposal for a lower orbit
active satellite in mind. Rosen told us about his highly ingenious design
for a synchronous satellite. He told us that he hoped that his satellite
could be launched with a Scout rocket (an early small solid-fuel booster)
using four upper stages. This didn't make much sense to me. Also, he
showed pictures of a large antenna built into the ground, aimed fixedly at
the point in the sky over which his satellite would hover. This was
The real problem was the difficulty and cost of the
satellite, not the cost of a ground antenna, tracking or not tracking. I
concluded that Harold Rosen was irresponsible, and I didn't pay enough
attention to what he had to say. Actually, he was (and is) a tremendously
ingenious, inventive, careful engineer. When he saw us, he was desperate
to get his satellite built and launched, and he used every argument he
could think of, good and bad.
Satellite communication via synchronous satellites is
an amazing resource. It gives us visual access to all of the world. It
links together the telephone networks of all nations, small and large. It
is our best resource in mobile communication. But, it is not as powerful
for communication within and between densely populated areas as are
optical fibers. Further, two-way satellite traffic suffers some
degradation through the time delay of almost a third of a second to the
satellite and back, or almost two thirds of a second round trip.
A satellite conversation with echo suppressors is
pretty bad. Echo cancellers make two-way satellite telephone circuits only
a little inferior to a ground circuit, fiber or wire. Still, I note in
television interviews conducted via satellite that the person at the far
end gives the impression of hesitating before answering a sharp question.
Really, he hasn't heard the question yet.
Why were communication satellites as we now know them
not thought of earlier, in science fiction, for instance? The reason is
that writers about space were preoccupied with men in space. The earliest
references to communication in space, which are traced in Arthur Clarke's
book, Ascent to Orbit, a Scientific Autobiography, involve
communication of men in satellites with earth. Hermann Oberth's first
book, The Rocket Into Planetary Space (1923) suggests that men in a
space station could communicate with earth, including ships at sea,
with candles at night and hand-mirrors by day. Presumably, Oberth felt the
radio of his day impractical in space.
Captain H. Totocnik, writing under the name Hermann
Noordung in 1928, described a manned space station in synchronous orbit
and assumed that there would be radio links between earth and the station.
In a 1942 science-fiction story, George O. Smith told
of a manned space station at the Trojan position, sixty degrees ahead of
Venus, used to maintain communication between Venus and earth when the sun
blocked the direct path.
In the February, 1945 issue of The Wireless World,
Clarke published a letter suggesting that synchronous satellites could
give television and microwave coverage of the entire planet. In the
October, 1945 issue of the same journal he published Extra-Terrestrial
Relays, in which he elaborated on the idea of worldwide communication
through manned space stations in synchronous orbit, something that we
still don't have.
Who first had the idea of unmanned satellites of the
sort we actually do have? I don't know. George Brown has written me that
in 1935 he and Loren Jones, then manager of transmission engineering at
RCA, were tremendously enthusiastic about synchronous communication
satellites, but their enthusiasm was recorded only in notebooks.
When I talked about unmanned communication satellites
in 1954 and wrote about them in 1955, I didn't think of this as a new
idea, but only as a good one.
I received the Marconi International Fellowship,
chiefly for my work on satellite communication. Clarke received the same
award later. A fellow I know at COMSAT called concerning Clarke's
nomination and asked me what Clarke had done. I said that Clarke had
published the first paper about communication satellites, and that I cited
it in whatever I wrote.
It took more than writing to convince people that
communication satellites would actually provide a useful means of
communication. To demonstrate this, someone had to build and launch a
The very first communication satellite was the United
States Government's SCORE (Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay
Equipment), launched on December 18, 1958. SCORE functioned for 13 days,
until its batteries ran down.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps's Courier project was a
further development of the SCORE approach, but it was not launched until
shortly after Echo. It operated for only 17 days.
Neither SCORE nor Courier received much public
notice. They convinced few if any that communication satellites would have
an early and important role in telecommunications.
Echo did, and Telstar clinched the conviction. Koji
Kobayashi, chairman of the board of NEC, has told me that at the time
Telstar was launched he had been working for some years on improving
tropospheric scatter communication, in order to provide communication
between Japan and the United States by means of a sequence of repeaters
along the Aleutians. Kobayashi was in
the United States when Telstar was launched and demonstrated. He saw
immediately that his tropospheric scatter idea was outmoded. He learned of
Harold Rosen's lonely struggle to promote the synchronous satellite which
finally became Syncom. Kobayashi visited Hughes and came to believe that
NEC's best role would be to build satellite ground terminals.
Echo was built and launched by NASA. The east-coast
ground terminal was designed and constructed by members of the Bell Labs
research department, with help from other parts of Bell Labs. Telstar was
designed and constructed in the development department of Bell Labs, and
by Western Electric. It incorporated suggestions and work of members of
the research department.
Echo and Telstar established satellite communication
firmly as a part of the future of telecommunications. Neither satellite
could have been built and launched without NASA, or without the American
missile programs (all the launch vehicles prior to the Space Shuttle were
adaptations of ballistic missiles), or without the expertise and hard work
of Bell Laboratories, of which I was one employee. What was my part in
Had I not been in my position at Bell Laboratories at
that time, Echo would not have been launched, and Telstar would not have
followed. I was fortunate to be the executive director of the part of the
research department most crucial to these undertakings. Better yet, I was
on good terms both with my bosses and with the people qualified to do the
work. They respected my technical ability and were willing to pursue the
opportunity that I pointed out.
Calvin Tomkins wrote a profile of me which appeared
in the New Yorker of September, 1963. When I spoke with him he had already
talked to others who had worked on Echo. He said to me, with, I thought, a
bit of surprise, "They like you." That pleased me greatly. And,
if "they" had not liked me, there would have been no Echo or