July 10 — Launch of Telstar 1 (1962)

Telstar 1, launched from Cape Canaveral on July 10th, 1962, marked a significant jump in the evolution of global communication.  It provided the first ever relay via space of television, telephone and telegraph images.

Telstar (model). Credit: AT&T / Rama.

The Telstar project was an international affair, involving the US, UK, and France.  It was also responsible for the building of the first dish at Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, a visit to which, in the 1970s, I remember as being partly responsible for my fascination with astronomy and spaceflight (Patrick Moore provided the rest of the inspiration).

Postcard from Goonhilly Satellite Station, Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall.

Built by Bell Labs, Telstar was designed to fit inside the US Delta launch vehicle, and it’s one of those things that I find hard to work out the size of from a photograph.  It’s actually just a little bigger than a large yoga ball (34.5 inches diameter).  Telstar was put into an off-centre orbit, varying between under 600 and over 3,600 miles above the Earth.  It’s still up there, and it’s altitude means it will probably remain up there for a very long time.

Unfortunately Telstar’s working life was severely curtailed by the effects of radiation from a high-altitude nuclear test (amazingly there was nothing unusual about that in the 1960’s).  It failed in November 1962, just four months after launch.  But that was still long enough to handle a few hundred telephone and telegraph messages, and to transmit a game of baseball and a speech by John F Kennedy.  They managed to get it working again in January 1963, but once again, radiation (this time solar) proved Telstar’s downfall, shutting it off for good in February.

Cloth sticker bought from “somewhere near Goonhilly” by my parents on their honeymoon, 1962.