50th anniversary of Telstar satellite this week; Andover to celebrate in August
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Telstar satellite, followed by the first transmission of its transcontinental television signal from the Andover station.
The town of Andover will commemorate the milestone as part of its annual Olde Home Day celebration on Saturday, Aug. 4.
The theme of this year’s parade will be “Telstar Satellite Celebrating 50 Years, The Sky’s the Limit.”
The day will also feature a gathering of some of the original AT&T crew, who manned the satellite station in the 1960s.
For more on the plans, see the Andover town column.
For background and history of the Telstar satellite and station, The Citizen reprints below a story which ran at the time of the 40th anniversary in 2002:
"You want to see history, get up here now," called one of Dave Belanger's fellow workers.
It was July 11, 1962. Belanger was a 20-year-old technician at the Telstar satellite earth station in Andover. Hired just a week before, he helped maintain the giant communications antennae housed under a white, seven-story, air-inflated dome.
Belanger scrambled up the 90-foot-tall antennae, to the "cab" at the top. "There was a little bitty TV monitor," he recalls. "I was looking over the shoulder of the engineers. Then, there was Yves Montand, playing his guitar. The engineers were dancing and jumping around."
It was the first transatlantic commercial broadcast of a television signal via satellite. The image of Montand, a French singer, was beamed to the U.S. from a similar satellite station in Pleumeur-Bodou, France.
The broadcast followed the previous day’s launch from Cape Canaveral of the 170-pound Telstar communications satellite.
The successful transmission paved the way for intercontinental broadcasts that we now take for granted, such as the Olympics and CNN news reports.
How did the remote town of Andover, Maine, come to figure so prominently in the history of satellite communications?
The site of the earth station is located on the floor of a large "bowl" surrounded by mountains, protecting it from interference from communications systems that existed at the time. But it was still close enough to communications routes to provide relatively easy interconnection. Andover was chosen over other sites in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.
The station was built by AT&T, while the Telstar satellite was designed and built by Bell Labs.
Telstar was the first satellite that didn't simply reflect communications signals, but amplified and retransmitted them. The idea for such a satellite was first conceived by science fiction writer Arthur Clarke in 1945, according to AT&T literature.
Getting a job
In the summer of 1961, Belanger was working as a plumber for the paper mill in Rumford, and thinking about joining the military as a way to get out of the area and get a better job. He didn't know much about what was going on at the station in Andover.
"I had heard about the place and took a ride up," Belanger said of the station. "I got up high, and I could see it. There was a guy guarding the gate."
Belanger decided to apply for a job. "They needed mechanically-minded people to maintain the antennae, with the hydraulic and diesel systems," he said. "I passed all the tests."
Belanger had found his better job right in Andover. He didn't begin work at the station, however, until July 2, 1962. He still didn't know much about the purpose of the station.
On July 10, the date the satellite was launched, Belanger was working around the base of the antennae when he noticed something unusual.
"There was a janitor holding an American flag, and a guy filming," he said. "I thought, 'I wonder what they're doing.'"
A videotape was also made of the flag flying outside the control building at the station, with the white dome in the background.
That evening, with Telstar project director Eugene O'Neill overseeing the work, engineers tried to beam a signal to the satellite and then back to their own station.
At 7:17 p.m. O'Neill announced, "We've acquired Telstar!" according to an account on the IEEE Website.
At 7:31 p.m. the American flag, with the dome in the background, appeared on the television monitor.
Then, at 7:47 p.m., the engineers received word that the French site had received the television picture. History had been made.
The next day, the commercial broadcast of Montand took place, with Belanger looking on.
"It was amazing to witness it," said Belanger.
Belanger and the other technicians were critical to providing reliable transmission through the summer and fall of 1962. "I worked 72 days straight, 12-hour days. I had to sleep here," he said.
The satellite was only in position to transmit signals between Europe and the U.S. for 20 minutes on each of its orbits around the earth, which took about 2 and ½ hours. But it was a beginning.
Telstar went out of service in February of 1963, several months after President John F. Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act. The act gave a monopoly on international communications via satellite to a new corporation called ComSat, which took over the Andover station several years later.
Over the years, said Belanger, a total of 250 different people came and went as employees of AT&T or Comsat.
"They stayed here long enough to get us into Telstar (the high school)," he joked.
Many of the employees came to the area from larger cities, and wanted their children to go to high school at a larger school than Andover provided. With SAD44 forming in the late 1960s, they pushed to join the regional school system. But as the satellite project wound down, many went back to the more metropolitan areas.
Bev Swan of the Andover Historical Society remembers a lot of new houses going up. "Some of them (the newcomers) had a hard time adjusting. There was no night life."
Many people also came to visit the satellite station. "People came from all over the world," she said. "I don't think the natives realized how important it was."
She said the Historical Society still has boxes of guest books signed by the visitors touring the station. Also on display are photos, signs, souvenirs and an actual piece of the "bubble," the synthetic white skin of the inflated dome, which was known as a Radome.
You Tube videos
For 1962 video showing the flag scenes, as well as the account of the launch and transmission, search “You Tube Telstar satellite 1962.”
The Telstar satellite was also the inspiration for the song “Telstar,” done by the Tornadoes group (search “Telstar Tornadoes” on You Tube).
There are also reports that the satellite’s black-and-white pattern served as inspiration for the Adidas Telstar soccer ball design for the 1970 World Cup, a design that has endured to the modern day. Information on the origin of the design are conflicting, however.