Before the internet was conceived, before the 1,000 channel universe and before the 24-hour news cycle of instant information, a single experiment was conducted by the "Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph Company" (AT&T). A single spherically-shaped satellite the size of a large beach ball; less than a meter in diameter, was created to relay telephone, telegraph and, most importantly, television transmissions, across the Atlantic Ocean; between the North American and European continents.

In the early 20th century, wireless communication between North America and Europe had already been achieved by using radio . In the 1960's, shortwave radio was already broadcasting worldwide thanks to the Earth's ionosphere. However, nobody had successfully transmitted television signals across such a great expanse. The greatest problem with broadcast television was that it used Very High Frequency (VHF) (for channels 2 to 13) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) (for channels 14 to 83). When using conventional household dipole antennae (more commonly known as "rabbit ears", these frequencies had very short ranges. As a result, broadcasts were very local and the up-to-the-minute news consisted of local events interspersed with films of foreign news, all of which had to be airlifted to the stations.

Many must have thought, "There has to be a better way". In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke had published an article concerning the use of geosynchronous satellites for relaying radio signals. In the early 1960's, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were mainly launching into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) realm and nobody had yet launched an object into geosynchronous orbit. Up to July 1962, the U.S.S.R. had claimed all of the space-race firsts: the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), the first living creature in space (Laika), the first person in space (Yuri Gagarin), the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova) and the first spacecraft to image the far side of the Moon (Luna 3), which was also the first spacecraft to assume a heliocentric orbit. What could the U.S. do after all of this had already been done?

AT&T developed a satellite that could potentially allow a satellite telecommunications bridge between North America and Europe. The "Telstar" satellite would be launched into an orbit with an apogee of nearly 6000 km, a perigee of 1000 km and a period of about 2 hours and 40 minutes. This would ensure that when Telstar was at apogee over the Atlantic Ocean it would allow a suitable amount of transmission time: about 20 minutes.

The Ground-breaking Telstar 1 Satellite Turns 50 This Month
Alcatel Lucent / Associated Press

Telstar 1 was launched on July 10, 1962 and broadcast its first test television transmission, an American flag in Andover, Maine to the French Pleumeur-Bodou station on July 11, 1962. This transmission was not broadcast to the public, but was featured in a newsreel report several days later.

National Public Radio (NPR)


An Image from the First Transatlantic TV Transmission. The Andover Station Dome is Seen Behind the American Flag



The most famous transmission occurred on July 23, 1962 at 3 p.m. Eastern Time when Walter Cronkite at CBS broadcast to Europe live. For the first time, viewers could see both the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge together live on their TV screens. Nearly 5 years after Sputnik, viewers from North America and Europe could see each other live, albeit in black and white only. Telstar had brought in the era of live transatlantic broadcasting. Worldwide television broadcasting would be another 5 years away.

Nobody had satellite dishes on their houses at the time. They still had television aerials and "rabbit ears". Cable television was in its infancy. Households could not directly receive the extremely low power transmissions from Telstar. The stations that received the signals were extremely large dishes in Maine, U.S.A., Great Britain and France. Telstar was not a Direct-to-Home Broadcast (DBS) satellite: the satellites that we use today with our little satellite dishes. Such a service would have to wait at least another 15 years.

National Public Radio (NPR)

National Public Radio (NPR)


Telstar was also a telephone and telegraph relay system. The first satellite phone call was made between U.S. vice-president Lyndon Johnson and the chairman of AT&T, Frederick Kappel via Telstar on July 11, 1962. This long distance telephone record would be broken by U.S. president Richard Nixon and astronaut Neil Armstrong 7 years later.




In the first televised presidential debates (in 1960), John F. Kennedy understood the power of television and used it to his advantage against his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. In July 1962, the price of gold and the value of the American dollar was worrying Europe. President Kennedy decided to use some of his airtime on Telstar to assure Europeans that gold prices (and the American dollar) would remain strong. This was the first instance of a politician using live satellite television to affect overseas foreign markets; and the gambit worked. Today, all politicians use satellite television to affect worldwide public opinion and their stock exchanges; by accident and by design - for good and for bad. We don't notice it today because we have become used to it.

National Public Radio (NPR)



Sometimes we hear about a telecommunications satellite being knocked out by a solar flare. Today this is a big deal because we depend on these satellites for our entertainment, live worldwide news and in some cases broadband internet. Since Telstar was an experimental satellite, its sudden loss would not disrupt the mainstream communications infrastructure of the day.

Telstar 1's orbit was placed firmly within the Van Allen radiation belts. These belts contain high concentrations of sub-atomic particles that can be disruptive and destructive to satellites, something that was experienced by Telstar several months after its launch. These radiation belts are affected by the Sun's activity, the Earth's magnetic field and, in some cases, by factors that were man-made. A day before Telstar 1's launch, the U.S. military conducted a space-based nuclear test called "Starfish Prime", consisting of a 1.4 Mega-ton bomb detonated at an altitude of only 400 km. Its after-effects were severe, causing wide-spread electrical failures on the ground and in space, eventually knocking out nearly a third of the active satellite population at the time.

Telstar's first failure occurred in December 1962, just 5 months after its launch. Telstar's onboard radiation detectors indicated that Starfish Prime could have been the primary culprit. AT&T was able to bring the satellite back to life for about 2 months, but the satellite was permanently disabled on February 21, 1963, just 7 months after its historic live television broadcast to Europe. The official reason for the failure was that its transistors could not handle the harsh radiation of space. Today, most satellites are equipped with radiation-hard components and radiation shields that protect sensitive equipment from solar radiation. Even with modern-day precautions, some satellites are still temporarily or permanently disabled from high density radiation mainly coming from the Sun during its solar maximum.


Most people do not know that two Telstars were launched in the early 1960's. Telstar 2 was launched on May 7, 1963; several months after its predecessor's failure. Telstar 2's orbit was even higher than its predecessor, getting as high as 11,000 km at its apogee and as near as 1000 km at its perigee. This would enable even longer communications opportunities while reducing the amount of time in the Van Allen radiation belts.

Telstar 2 was nearly identical to its predecessor with the exceptions that it employed more radiation-resistant transistors and it allowed scientific data to be transmitted in real time. The satellite lasted for two years before it was deliberately switched off on May 17, 1965.

Since Telstar 2 was the second transatlantic telecommunications satellite, it does not share the fame that its predecessor did. However, Telstar 2 is still extremely important in the history of satellite telecommunications.


AT&T had six Telstar satellites constructed for launch. The original plan was to place at least 40 Telstars in orbit in order to provide a worldwide telecommunications capability. Cost was not a concern since AT&T had a virtual monopoly on the telephone services in North America and therefore could reap any and all of the rewards of the Telstar constellation. Unfortunately, Telstar 3, 4, 5 and 6 never launched.

The reason why the Telstar worldwide constellation never became a reality was possibly due to another satellite that was  launched one month before Telstar 2 was switched off. On April 6, 1965, Arthur C. Clarke's dream of geosynchronous satellite communications became reality when Intelsat 1-F1 (AKA Early Bird) was launched into a circular GEO orbit. Since Early Bird was orbiting at the same rate as the Earth turns and at a much higher altitude (nearly 4 times further than Telstar 2's apogee), it would be accessible from more places for 24 hours straight without having to slew the receiving or transmitting dishes. Using GEO orbits were much more practical than the Telstar method of small accesses per satellite and a high slew rate for all of the communications dishes.


Between 1965 and 1983, no new satellite was given the name of Telstar. On July 28, 1983, 21 years after the launch of Telstar 1, Telstar 301 (contracted by AT&T and built by Hughes) was launched into a geostationary orbit. This was quickly followed by Telstar 302 (launched on the space shuttle Discovery) and Telstar 303 (also launched on the space shuttle Discovery) on August 30, 1984 and June 17, 1985 respectively. This generation of Telstars looked nothing like the large spherical beach ball of Telstar 1 and Telstar 2. They were cylindrical and were spin-stabilized. All three of the Telstar 300-series were responsible for much more telecommunication traffic than were Telstar 1 and Telstar 2. In the 1980s satellite television was becoming extremely popular and the number of satellite channels was growing quickly. Live satellite feeds from all over the world were being used by countless news agencies. Cable television was becoming more dependent on satellites with every new year. Telstars 301, 302 and 303 were decommissioned in 1993, 2001 and 2001 respectively.

Telstar 302 is launched from the Cargo Bay of Space Shuttle Discovery

A third generation of Telstars began with Telstar 401 on December 16, 1993, but this generation did not go as smoothly as its predecessors. Telstar 401 experienced a catastrophic and irreparable failure due to a solar storm on January 11, 1997; nearly a month after its 3rd birthday. Telstar 402 exploded shortly after launch on September 9, 2004. Telstar 402R, the replacement to the destroyed Telstar 402, was the most successful, launched on September 24, 1995, but also suffered a catastrophic failure 8 years later.

A Telstar 400-series Satellite
Lockheed Martin

The Telstars after the 300 and 400-series were varied and were no longer tied to a single country (USA). The list includes:

Telstar 11 (Orion 1) - USA
Telstar 5 (Galaxy 25) - USA
Telstar 10 (Apstar 2R) - P.R. China
Telstar 6 (Galaxy 26) - USA
Telstar 7 (Galaxy 27) - Intelsat Corporation
Telstar 12 (Orion 2) - USA
Telstar 13 (Galaxy 13) - USA
Telstar 14 (Estrela-du-Sol) - USA / Brazil
Telstar 18 (Apstar 5) - P.R. China
Telstar 11N - Canada
Telstar 14R - Canada

The Latest Telstar: Telstar 14R
Telesat Canada

The complexity of each Telstar satellite generation increases with the increasing Earth-based demand for larger bandwidth, more TV channels and faster broadband speeds. Rather than miniaturizing, as most devices do over time, the telecommunications satellite has increased in size, complexity and power in order to keep up with our demands. The expected lifetime of a modern-day Telstar satellite is much longer than the first: 15 to 20 years as opposed to months or a few years.


The huge success of the Telstar 1 satellite inspired a song to be written by record producer Joe Meek. The song was first performed by the Tornados and was covered by many other performers, including Billy Vaughn, James Last, The Ventures, OMD, Midnight Oil, Laika and the Cosmonauts, The Spotnicks and Wolfman Jack.

MCA (Decca) / Joe Meek


The success of Telstar 1 also ushered in a huge amount of commercial products for sale. From soccer balls to cars, the name was (and still is) used all over the world to symbolize technical progress.

The Telstar Soccer Ball (Adidas)

Telstar Cable (Jamaica)

The Ford Telstar

Telstar Drugs (Alberta)


When I was first introduced to the exciting world of satellite tracking, I became fascinated with the satellite population's trail-blazers. I tried to find as many of the original satellites that I could find that were still in orbit. One of my "obsessions" was Telstar 1. The equipment I was using at the time was primitive, a 10-inch Meade Quartz fitted with stepper motors controlled by a Quadrant I driver and an SBIG ST-6 CCD camera. I used my own software to predict where the satellite would be seen and I had to wait until that time to try for an image. There was no guarantee that I would even see it, even if the telescope was pointed at the right coordinates at the right time.

At 04:34:52 UTC on July 3, 1998, nearly 36 years after the satellite's historic broadcast, I detected a faint streak in a 10-second exposure which was confirmed to be Telstar 1. This would be the first of the many satellite trailblazers that I would detect in the next 15 years. I detected Telstar 1 again on March 31, 2007 and it was entered as the 466th satellite in the CASTOR Satellite Catalogue. I detected it several additional times over the next several years. I might get another image of the satellite between now and the 50th anniversary of its historic public broadcast on July 23rd.

My First Image of Telstar 1: 04:34:52 UTC July 3, 1998 at the Royal Military College of Canada
Michael A. Earl / Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC)

My Second Image of Telstar 1: 03:01:47 UTC March 31, 2007
Michael A. Earl / CASTOR


It has been 50 years since Telstar 1 was launched on July 10, 1962, but its effects are now seen and heard all over the world, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We now live in a 24-hour live communications world, thanks to a small sphere of metal no larger than a beach ball.





The Many Firsts of Telstar Was Last Modified On July 18, 2012