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Fifty Years Ago, Lyndon Johnson Answered the First Satellite Phone Call

Telstar 1, which launched 50 years ago today, was the world’s first commercial satellite, and a testament to government-industry cooperation

An American flag waving in Andover, Maine. This was the first video ever transmitted by commercial satellite. (Feedloader (Clickability))

“Good evening Mr. Vice President, this is Fred Kappel calling from the Earth Station at Andover, Maine. The call is being relayed through our Telstar satellite as I’m sure you know. How do you hear me?”

“You’re coming through nicely Mr. Kappel,” said Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

So began the first phone call ever routed through a commercial satellite, designed and flown by AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, and the English and French governments. (Despite the fact that the satellite was owned in part by AT&T, neither party remembered to complain about the call quality.) Following on that call’s heels came the first satellite-transmitted video, of a flag waving in Andover, the first fax, and a video Montand Yves singing La Chansonnette, says the CBC.

Telstar 1, which launched into orbit 50 years ago today, was the world’s first commercial satellite and a testament to both international and government-industry cooperation. The launch took place just shy of five years after the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite ever put into orbit.

Sadly, according to the CBC, Telstar 1 didn’t last long.

Another relatively new technology would be Telstar’s undoing. The day before the launch, the U.S. had conducted Starfish Prime, a high-altitude nuclear weapons test.

Radiation from that blast and others damaged Telstar’s fragile transistors. It went out of service in December, was temporarily restarted in January but additional transistor failure meant Telstar’s last emission was on Feb. 21, 1963.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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