Live via Satellite

Satellite communication’s ascent.

On August 12, 1960, NASA and Bell Laboratories sent a 30-meter aluminum-coated Mylar balloon into space-launching the satellite communications industry. The project would never have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for the persistence of John R. Pierce, a visionary Bell Labs engineer who moonlighted as a science fiction writer.

While Pierce was an electrical engineering student at Caltech, he wrote a science fiction story that took second place in a local contest. After he accepted a job at Bell Labs in 1936, he continued writing under the pseudonym J. J. Coupling. Because Pierce was known for his way with words, in 1948 colleague Walter Brattain asked him for help naming a new device that amplified electrical signals. Pierce suggested “the transistor,” and the name stuck.

In 1952, the year Pierce became Bell Labs’ director of electronics research, he wrote an article in which he calculated the power necessary to transmit signals across wide distances via large balloon-type satellites. Over the next several years, he gave lectures and published scientific papers on communications satellites but wasn’t able to convince Bell Labs to pursue the potentially costly project.

Pierce finally had a lucky break when he discovered that William J. O’Sullivan, an aeronautical engineer at NASA, had built a large metallic balloon of the kind he had envisioned-although O’Sullivan planned to use it to measure atmospheric density, not to reflect communications signals across the world.

In 1959, NASA and Bell Labs agreed to collaborate on a balloon satellite, in what became known as Project Echo. NASA would provide and launch the balloon, its Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech would build a West Coast station to send signals, and Bell Labs would construct an East Coast receiving station. On that August day in 1960 when Echo I was successfully launched, a recorded message from President Eisenhower was transmitted from Goldstone, CA, to the Bell Labs station in Crawford Hill, NJ.

Echo I orbited the globe for eight years before finally falling back to earth. Pierce himself retired from Bell Labs in 1971 and in 1983 became a visiting professor of music at Stanford University. Pierce died on April 2, 2002, at age 92. His original satellite would have many successors: 2001 alone saw 39 communications satellite launches worldwide. Today, more than 150 communications satellites circle the globe, transmitting everything from phone calls to Global Positioning System data.

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