What was Telstar? And Why Did We Nuke It?

Today, private sector involvement in space exploration and development is commonplace. Companies like Space X and Blue Origin are taking on roles that were once considered only the work of NASA – putting satellites into orbit, sending cargo to the International Space Station, and soon, manned space flight.

In the early days of space exploration, this was a rare phenomenon. That is, until Telstar came along.

Image: Bell Labs

Image: Bell Labs

Telstar was the first working communications satellite ever sent into space. Designed and built by the Bell Telephone Labs at AT&T, Telstar was capable of receiving and sending signals from one spot on the globe to another.

Launched as the first commercial payload by NASA on July 10, 1962, the 170-pound Telstar started beaming its stuff as soon as it reached orbit. President Kennedy, baseball games, Mount Rushmore; the images were wonderful precursors of what was to come. Then the picture got fuzzy.

The day before Telstar was scheduled to launch, the U.S. government executed a high-altitude nuclear test in the Pacific. The 1.4 megaton explosion sent a surprisingly large amount of high energy electrons into the atmosphere. These electrons hovered in the atmosphere for days and started slowly frying Telstar’s circuits.

Hence, one of the earliest known instances of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) in action.

Telstar managed to continue its work for a few more months, cranking out hundreds of phone, fax, and television transmissions before succumbing to the effects of the nuke test.

In the end, Telstar taught us just as much about what a nuclear attack would do to our satellite network as it did about orbital communications. It’s life was too short, but noble, and quite educational.