Last week, the Museum recognized the 50th anniversary of Telstar, the first “active” satellite (one that can receive a radio signal from a ground station and then immediately re-transmit it to another) and the first technology of any kind that enabled transatlantic television transmissions. In 1962, both accomplishments generated intense interest, excitement, and commentary. Telstar was, at once, a technical, political, and cultural happening, providing impetus to the world of globalized information we take for granted today. Our anniversary program featured a satellite simulcast between the Museum and the French city of Pleumeur-Bodou (an echo of the first United States-Europe television exchanges in July 1962), then a symposium exploring the history of Telstar and the significance of its legacy.
My contribution today is to offer some broad reflections on the perspectives and tensions that Telstar brought to the fore in U.S. life in late summer and early fall of 1962 (and correct some confusions in Telstar’s early chronology that appeared in many news briefs on the anniversary last week). In November 1962, the satellite suffered electrical problems and went out of service for several weeks, then expired altogether in February 1963. But in its blaze across these months of 1962, it overlapped with and helped shape perceptions of a variety of concurrent events—U.S. and USSR human space flight missions, a string of nuclear weapons test, the Cuban missile crisis, and iconic cultural moments such as Marilyn Monroe’s death.
Telstar embodied a host of technical accomplishments. As was true for many Space Age achievements, it was a testament to large-scale systems engineering and the coordinated work of teams of experts. In addition to the satellite, the system included massive and complex ground stations: In Pleumeur-Bodou, at Goonhilly Downs, England, and, on the U.S. side, a primary ground station in Andover, Maine. (For more on Pleumeur-Bodou, please see the blog-post of my colleague Paul Ceruzzi.) These ground stations, with Telstar in orbit, collectively provided the means for transatlantic satellite communications, connecting the two continents in a way that had not previously been possible.
Telstar, though, differed in one crucial respect from every other period Space Age project: Its funding came predominantly from a private corporation, AT&T, the largest firm in the world at the time. NASA and the governments of Great Britain and France were partners, providing key resources, but the effort was seen as exemplar of private initiative, working hand-in-hand with the public sector. In the context of the Cold War, this collaboration was a boon and a source of tension. As the fruit of an American corporation, Telstar stood for the defining place of private enterprise in American life and as an alternative to Soviet-style communism. The importance of satellite communications as technology and symbol in the Cold War already had been highlighted (though now not often remembered) in President Kennedy’s well-known May 1961 “Moon” speech.
But in 1962, as the United States and USSR sought to persuade peoples around the world to align with their respective political values, the question arose who should control this powerful tool of communicating internationally via television. Should this capability be primarily in private hands, or be considered an instrument of government policy? Through the summer of 1962, as Telstar demonstrated its prowess for television broadcasting, Congress debated this very issue, eventually approving a “split the baby” solution (creating what would soon become Comsat and Intelsat, the organizations that, in 1969, would bring the Apollo moon landing to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world).
Though Washington policy battles can be dry stuff, the debates reflected a new reality. Television had become a critical part of American culture. In 1950, about six million televisions were in use in the United States; after 1960, the number was well north of 60 million. Sending images directly into homes, television was regarded as a uniquely potent medium—either to promote awareness and critical thinking, or to undermine such communal virtues through escapist entertainment. In 1961, Newton Minow, head of the Federal Communications Commission, leaned toward the latter assessment and famously remarked that television programming was a “vast wasteland.” Telstar added another dimension to this “promise and peril” perception of the role of television, expanding its reach from primarily national to international markets and bringing events from around the world “live” into everyday experience.
Marshall McLuhan already had coined the term “global village” to characterize this emerging change in human affairs. As Telstar began its broadcasts famed television anchor Walter Cronkite noted the satellite makes the “White House and the Kremlin no farther apart than the speed of light”—a sentiment that helps us understand part of the reason for the satellite’s broad impact on the imagination of Americans in 1962. U.S. and USSR long-range missiles just were entering service, making mutual nuclear warfare and destruction possible within 20-30 minutes. For the optimistic, satellite communications technology, and its promise of instantaneous connection, seemed like an antidote, promoting understanding across cultures and intercontinental distances and defusing misunderstandings.
Telstar entered into this context—infusing it with excitement and a tinge of the utopian, a strong sense of world-changing progress, as well as highlighting the tensions and realities of the Cold War and of television as a cultural phenomenon. And one of its technical characteristics only seemed to intensify this sense of a changing present and an impending future: During each orbit of more than two and a half hours, only 20-30 minutes could be used for transatlantic communications. Television could only be done in bursts, heightening scrutiny of the implications of the new capability.
Soon after Telstar’s launch early on the morning of July 10, engineers began to test the satellite. In anticipation of success, a large audience of dignitaries, including Vice President Johnson gathered in Washington D.C., to commemorate the first phone and television transmissions via satellite. The U.S. television networks carried the events. Initial expectations were that these historic transmissions would be between Andover, Maine and Washington D.C.—a strictly U.S. occasion. But Pleumeur-Bodou, too, picked up the satellite signals: a panning shot of the American flag waving in front of the Andover ground station as “America the Beautiful” played in the background, thereby inaugurating transatlantic television.
On July 12 (but still July 11 in the United States), the French ran a test from their side. But rather than broadcast bland panoramas or discussions among dignitaries, they ran a tape of singer Yves Montand and sights of Paris. A little later in the day, the British finally joined the fun and did a live broadcast featuring the engineers and technicians of Goonhilly. Both east-to west transmissions, each just several minutes in duration, were carried by U.S. networks and into U.S. homes. As a national marketing event, the French choice seemed more astute. In a U.S. celebrity name recognition survey taken in the weeks after, Mr. Montand rose to number three, trailing movie stars Janet Leigh and Kim Novak, but ranking above Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As reported in one magazine, a New York City woman exclaimed, “Just imagine! I was so thrilled! Yves Montand! Live! Straight from Paris!”—indicating television’s propensity to confuse recorded and live events. CBS, referring to its coverage of the Goonhilly broadcast, proclaimed “we are proud to have been the first to bring the biggest eight-minute show in television history to the United States.” Telstar had arrived, its coverage on TV and in newspapers, resembling, according to one observer, a “space fever chart.”
With these transmissions as preview, U.S. and European television networks moved from opportunistic presentations to a coordinated, planned transatlantic extravaganza, set for July 23. Several hundred million on both sides of the Atlantic, in 16 nations (including communist Yugoslavia), watched the telecast, which began with a split screen image of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, then an excited exhortation of “Go, America, Go” as the U.S. portion of the program started. It was a combination of seriousness—presenting a portion of President Kennedy’s press conference, as he talked about monetary policy and nuclear testing—and travelogue superficiality, showing scenes of iconic American locales, such as Mount Rushmore, accompanied by singers belting out the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The presentation was a genre already well-established in television programming known as “Wide Wide World.” The European portion of the show, occurring a couple of hours later, on a subsequent orbit of the satellite, was much the same, completing what was widely reported as “a historic achievement, a notable victory for the West in its space and communications race with the Soviet Union.”
This series of July broadcasts, from July 10 to 23, encapsulated the uncertainties of 1962 and the possible role of transcontinental television in recalibrating the Cold War and day-to-day life. Perhaps not too surprisingly Telstar anniversary coverage last week often conflated these separate events and missed some of the context that gave the satellite achievement its meaning in 1962. Should television via satellite, with its broad geographic reach, emphasize high-minded news coverage of political import? The projection of idealized concepts of the nation—whether of the United States, France, Britain, or others? Or reflect television’s preeminent role in conveying popular entertainment (which some regarded as “vast wasteland”)? All of which invoked the key question: Who would decide?
In the months to follow, as Telstar undertook additional broadcasts, all of these perspectives and contentions were aired, jostling against each other. The Pope told pilgrims gathered in Rome that Telstar had “helped strengthen brotherhood among peoples,” and “marked a new stage of peaceful progress.” In turn, when in fall 1962 Vice President Johnson visited the Pope he presented His Holiness with a model of the satellite as a gift. Others weighed in as to whether Telstar’s scarce airtime should be used for news or the actual fare of U.S. popular entertainment—period shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Yogi Bear.” This sentiment could turn dark. Political philosopher Ayn Rand saw in Telstar an avenue to totalitarian suppression of free speech rights, asking “which one of us will obtain equal time on that global medium? And if we do not, how will we make ourselves heard?” Optimistic assessments, though, were more common. Historian Arnold Toynbee penned for the New York Times a long essay called “A Message for Mankind from Telstar,” arguing that the technical progress represented by the satellite paled in comparison to its “new hope for the survival of the human race.”
A day before Toynbee’s essay appeared, Telstar’s scarce time was used to broadcast to France a 20-minute program on Marilyn Monroe’s death, that included “pictures of Miss Monroe’s secluded home and an outside view of the bedroom where here nude body was discovered.” Period culture watchers mused that Telstar might be introducing the “Age of Ephemera—the one day sensation, wowing ‘em simultaneously in Paris, Peoria, Pretoria, and Peru,” a trend Andy Warhol reduced to 15 minutes a few years later. In the yin and yang of Telstar, a mirror of the state of television, popular frivolity and serious politics shared transatlantic airtime, providing opportunities to see and be seen in new ways. As African American leaders, in the midst of the U.S. Civil Right Movement, poignantly stated the satellite could be used to share their struggle on an international stage and gain new voices of support: “The whole world knows what’s happening here. The whole world is watching…”
Though that last phrase was not quite true, and carried different meanings for different people, it captured the essence of what Telstar brought into the world of 1962 — and of what would follow in the years after as global communications, via satellite and undersea fiber optic cable, gradually became part of the fabric of everyday life.
Martin Collins is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.