“That’s As High As It Will Ever Get”: Getting Into Orbit

At the 1961 Paris Air Show, Hughes Aircraft (despite its name, an electronics company) displayed a prototype lightweight geosynchronous communication satellite. Industry representatives and the media apparently were not impressed. When Hughes actually operated the satellite from the top of the Eiffel Tower, some wag was quoted as saying: “That’s as high as it will ever get.” Four decades later, Hughes (now part of Boeing) is the builder of almost half of all geosynchronous commercial communication satellites.

Today, commercial space expenditures exceed government space expenditures, yet people think of space as the exclusive domain of spacefaring governments. Sputnik, Soyuz, and Apollo, after all, were government programs. We often assume that communication satellites also were products of government programs. Because the Space Race was an integral part of the Cold War, government credit for space achievements garnered important national prestige and attained vital foreign policy goals. Nonetheless, the origins of communication satellites and the satellite communication industry are in the marketplace, not government planning.

In 1945, an RAF electronics officer and member of the British Interplanetary Society, Arthur C. Clarke, described a revolution in communications in a letter to the editor of Wireless World. Three spacecraft in orbit 20,000 miles (32,000 km) above the planet would appear motionless from the surface, hence the term “geo” (Earth) “stationary,” and would provide full planetary coverage. Clarke envisioned these spacecraft not as modern satellites, but as bulky space stations staffed by astronauts and broadcasting television and radio programming.

The years following World War II witnessed a boom in transatlantic communications. By 1954, AT&T was building the first transatlantic telephone cable (TAT-1). The firm, the largest telecommunications entity in the world, employed John R. Pierce. In addition to managing communications research at Bell Laboratories, Pierce was a science-fiction author. In a 1954 talk before industrial space enthusiasts, Pierce discussed the practical realities of satellite communications. He analyzed three basic constellations. One used passive satellites (like the Echo balloons), while a second used satellites with active electronics (like Telstar) in orbits of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km). The third placed active satellites in geostationary orbit. Pierce did not expect a geostationary constellation to be practical soon, because it would require orbital and attitude controls as well as a powerful rocket launcher. He estimated the value of one communication satellite to be $1 billion based on the estimated $36 million cost of TAT-1’s 36 telephone channels.

Before the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, plans for developing satellites for defense, science, and communications, and weather already were in the pipeline. All they lacked was a launch vehicle. By early 1958, AT&T had convinced NACA (NASA’s predecessor) that their balloon satellite (Echo) could serve as a passive communication satellite. AT&T next petitioned the FCC for permission to launch an experimental communication satellite. Although NASA controlled access to civilian space, AT&T was the leading expert on communication satellites. After all, Bell Labs had invented transistors, solar cells, masers, and traveling wave tubes-the critical technologies need to build active communication satellites.

Meanwhile, Hughes Aircraft became interested in satellite communications. Around 1957, the defense community realized that the USSR did not have a huge bomber fleet, nor was it planning to build such a fleet. The “bomber gap” was a myth. The Defense Department consequently canceled the Air Force F-108 fighter, intended to counter the perceived threat, and left Hughes, the supplier of the F-108 radar fire control system, looking for new work. Dr. Harold Rosen and his colleague Donald D. Williams, energized by the possibilities suggested by Sputnik, started looking at space projects and soon focused on satellite communications. They became convinced, moreover, that they could overcome the hurdles to geostationary satellite communications that Pierce had found so daunting.

By 1959, Rosen and his Hughes colleagues had designed a low-cost, lightweight geostationary communication satellite, and had gained corporate support for further development and funding. The following year, working now with Tom Hudspeth, they achieved the design that would be the basis for Hughes’ communication satellites for the next three decades. Hughes management, however, wanted a business partner to develop the operational system. The partner could be a telecommunications company, NASA, or the Defense Department. However, they had no partner in early 1961, when they competed against AT&T to build the Relay satellite for NASA. Both firms lost to RCA. To strengthen their Relay bid, Hughes had built a satellite prototype and had shown it to several potential business partners. They even brought it to the 1961 Paris Air Show.

Although NASA awarded the Relay contract to RCA, it also offered to sell launch services to AT&T for its Telstar satellite. Four days later, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation and promised to put an American on the moon by the decade’s conclusion. In another, long forgotten, portion of that speech, Kennedy committed the country to building a global satellite communication system, adding $50 million to NASA’s budget to begin building that system. Subsequently, NASA decided to add a small geostationary satellite experiment, Syncom, in August 1961, just a few months after its Eiffel Tower debut.

AT&T’s Telstar launched in July 1962. NASA’s Relay launched in December 1962. The first Syncom, initially funded by Hughes, launched in January 1963, but failed after injection into geostationary orbit. Launched in July 1963, the second Syncom was a complete success. After assessing the Telstar, Relay, and Syncom programs, COMSAT, the U. S. government’s semi-private agency for satellite communications, chose to launch an experimental geostationary satellite, Early Bird, a direct descendant of Syncom. Syncom was the bases for all subsequent communication satellites until the mid-1970s, when three-axis-stabilized satellites became available. Geostationary orbit, pioneered by Hughes, remained the only orbit used for commercial satellite communications until the 1990s. Moreover, it is still the only orbit that is commercially successful.

David J. Whalen

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