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Tech by VICE

Our First Communications Satellite Was a Giant Shiny Inflatable Death Star

Fifty one years ago this week, a microwave transmission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California was received at Bell Laboratories in Homdel, New Jersey, after bouncing off a giant silver balloon floating in space. It was Echo calling...

by ALEX PASTERNACK
Aug 17 2012, 9:25pm

Fifty one years ago this week, a microwave transmission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California was received at Bell Laboratories in Homdel, New Jersey, after bouncing off a giant silver balloon floating in space. It was Echo calling – our first passive space satellite, capable of relaying a message from one point on Earth to another.

It also provided the astronomical reference points needed to locate the city of Moscow more accurately than ever before, bringing the world one crucial step closer to all out nuclear war.

“If it works, it will be the first time voice has traveled from the Earth, up to a man-made moon, and back to earth again,” intones the narrator in NASA’s documentary about Echo, produced that year (see below). The film begins with the feel of a Twilight Zone episode, and doesn’t veer far. Which makes total sense, given just how sci-fi the satellite was.

Created at the Langley Research Center, the satellite was made of Mylar and measured 100 feet in diameter. Once in orbit, on August 12, 1960, residual air inside the balloon expanded, and the balloon began its task of reflecting radio transmissions from one ground station back to another.

US Postage stamp of Echo I

This wasn’t the very first communications satellite. Three years prior, the USSR launched Sputnik, whose faint beep of a radio transmission launched the space race. A year later, the U.S. secretly launched SCORE, a satellite that transmitted the first actual message from space to Earth (it also landed in New Jersey). It was a faint tape recording of President Eisenhower:

“This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you via a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and all mankind, America’s wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere.”

Undersea cables already supported three million messages across the Atlantic every year, but demand was growing beyond their carrying capacity. “We would like to see live television programs,” explains the narrator with no small sense of urgency, “history in the making from all over the world.”

To add to the film’s sci-fi tone, Bell Labs hired Jerry Fairbanks, the legendary b-movie domino, to helm it. Credit is due to him for the schmaltzy music, the clunky acting, and the film’s wide-eyed vision of the future. “In this super cold world,” the narrator says at one point, explaining the method for amplifying messages, “the Mazer’s ruby crystal helps keep the telephone conversation clear and easy to hear.” Later, the narrator speculates about a far away future of geosynchronous satellites – a future that arrived only a few years later.

Echo 2 “satelloon” in airship hangar, Weeksville, NC, June 1961
The Homdel Horn Antenna, constructed to receive signals from Echo, also helped discover cosmic background radiation

When NASA launched Echo II in 1964, some called it the most beautiful object ever launched into space. It was a 135-foot diameter inflatable sphere of aluminum-coated Mylar that functioned as a passive reflective communications satellite. Like its predecessor, it was visible to the naked eye. But unlike its predecessor, it was also visible as it was inflating: the Echo II launch vehicle contained both film and video cameras. (The architects of MOS designed a passing tribute to Echo for last year’s Venice Biennial.)

Could the filmmakers or scientists involved have any inkling that five decades later the film would be streaming over an Internet connection from thousands of miles away, or that there would be three hundred geostationary satellites competing to lob our communications around the Earth? By the end, with the soothing sound of President Eisenhower’s first message from the SCORE satellite, the promises of “outer space,” and the melody of “America the Beautiful,” you might also feel like you’ve been launched out of the atmosphere for a moment, into a brighter, older version of the future.

Image:
NASA. Download the large version here