Telstar anniversary spurs reflection

July 10, 2012


— It was the largest air-inflated structure in the world, 161 feet high and 210 feet wide, constructed of polyester and synthetic rubber. Inside the balloon was a 177-foot-long horn-shaped antenna that weighed 380 tons. Not a trace of it remains. But here in a tiny rural town nestled in a valley that provided natural shielding from radio interference, a revolution was born 50 years ago today.

That revolution doesn’t seem remarkable today, but a half-century ago the notion of sending a television signal from North America to Europe shook the world. A generation remembers the first transmitted image vividly — a fuzzy shot of an American flag fluttering in a Maine village — but millions more have been affected by the telecasts that have become unremarkable as a result of what happened here — by the televised coverage of Olympic violence, royal weddings, airplane hijackings, the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi.

Maine town changed

Settled in 1789, the year the Constitution took effect, Andover for nearly two centuries was a tranquil outpost near the Canadian and New Hampshire borders, midway between Boston and Montreal but resolutely nowhere. Its citizens ran small farms and worked in the forests, always showing themselves, as a resolution by the state legislature noted, as “very resilient, resourceful and independent.” But people didn’t move too quickly here, toward the future or anyplace else; if you drove your horse over the covered bridge faster than a walk, you were vulnerable to a $3 fine.

Until Telstar — a 3-foot-diameter sphere weighing 170 pounds with 1,064 transistors and 1,464 diodes — was sent aloft by a Boeing Thor Delta booster that split the skies and opened the age of satellite communications. The iconic black-and-white image was so stunning a breakthrough that President John F. Kennedy predicted it would “throw open to us the vision of an era of international communications.”

Now the future has left Andover behind, though Verizon Wireless still runs a satellite communications operation amid the white pine, elm and birch copse that once changed the Earth. A few abandoned foundations remain at the site, which you access by passing a sign with the words painted out, but no physical evidence hints that an era began here that rendered undersea cable and radio transmissions relics of a fast-receding past.

“No one incident in history has meant as much to the Town of Andover,” the Rumford Falls Times wrote in 1962, “as has the decision of the American Telegraph and Telephone Co. to erect the satellite ground station in that town.”

Only memories remain. Even Telstar High School is somewhere else, in Bethel, down Route 5, more than a half-hour south.

“Some people were apprehensive,” recalls Trudy Akers, secretary of the Andover Historical Society. “They were worried that if there was a war the Russians would bomb us. But it was great for a small town. Lots of new people moved in. Some of them stayed for many years. It was a window on the world for all of us here.”

Future of communications

Telstar I operated for less than a year — eventually its command decoders wouldn’t accept instructions from Andover — and it was followed by a second Telstar, 4 1/2 pounds heavier, positioned farther out in space and better situated for communications with Asia. But the telephone call between AT&T;’s chairman and Vice President Lyndon Johnson 15 hours after blastoff, followed by the shaky image of the flag, carved a new future in communications.

“Very-high-frequency radio and TV stations, which are limited to line-of-sight range, suddenly saw their future reach out beyond the horizon, around the curve of the Earth,” bellowed Time magazine.

Today’s communications-driven world was unimaginable in Telstar’s time, but it would have been unattainable without it.

“Telstar opened up an area of activity that has transformed the world,” says John M. Logsdon of George Washington University, perhaps the leading historian of the space program. “It has made instantaneous global communication possible. Before Telstar and what followed Telstar, you had to book ahead to make an international telephone call. There was very limited capability and it was very expensive. Now we have Skype.”

For all its achievements, Telstar was a product of the wrong technology. It depended on movable antennae — Andover’s rotated every which way to capture Telstar’s signals — and a truly global network based on the Telstar model would have required a long string of satellites, almost certainly at a higher orbit. That’s because in the early days of satellite communications, scientists didn’t think they could launch geosynchronous satellites, manmade space objects whose orbital period and pattern matched that of Earth, keeping them stationary over a particular location. It turned out that that ability was only a few years off.

Giant leap forward

But Telstar was a giant leap forward, one of the wonders of the world, or at least of that world.

“Telstar involved problems of a scope and magnitude far beyond any we had faced (before),” according to the late John R. Pierce, a Bell Labs engineer and author who wrote a history of Telstar. “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.”

Those elements seem antiquarian today, when the word “transistor” seldom passes the lips, and that achievement seems modest given last summer’s conclusion of the Space Shuttle era.

While Telstar was a precursor to dramatic and significant breakthroughs in telecommunications, it also spawned an important cultural marker — the Tornados’ hit instrumental “Telstar,” which remains familiar and irritating, and was the first single by a British group to reach No. 1 on both the American and British pop charts.

Like the satellite whose bleeps it was intended to imitate, the song paved the way for even greater cultural developments. The second single by a British group to achieve those ratings was called “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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