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Early Bird still soars, 50 years later
July 6, 2015
by Mark Ollig

It was April 6, 1965, and Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey was vice president of the United States, and chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

On this date, he witnessed (via close circuit TV) NASA’s rocket launch of the first ITSO (International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) satellite called: IntelSat 1 F-1, and nicknamed “Early Bird.”

The satellite was dubbed Early Bird in reference to the old adage: “The early bird catches the worm.”

Early Bird was the world’s first commercially used communications satellite.

The Space and Communications Group of the Hughes Aircraft Company constructed its cylindrical shape for the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT).

Electronics contained inside the 85-pound satellite performed the switching magic for 240 simultaneous telephone calls.

There was also one channel used for broadcasting live television programs between North America and Europe.

Additionally, Early Bird could relay telegraph signals, and facsimile (fax) transmissions.

It could not perform all of these functions simultaneously, so commercial companies vied for obtaining time to use specific satellite services.

Early Bird’s payload included two 6-watt transponders, and operated on an allocated frequency bandwidth of 50 MHz (megahertz).

NASA used a Thrust Augmented Delta D rocket to place the Early Bird into a geosynchronous orbit above the Atlantic Ocean, along the Earth’s equator, at a distance of some 22,300 miles.

From what I understand, a “geosynchronous orbit” is when a satellite’s orbital speed matches the speed in which the planet is turning. The high earth-orbit allows the satellite to position itself in the same location above the Earth’s surface as it travels the planet in a circular orbit.

Ground satellite stations can then focus their antenna towards a fixed location in the sky, ensuring a direct-line-of-sight to the satellite; thus allowing the uninterrupted sending and receiving of signaling data.

The Early Bird would orbit over the same location between North America and Europe.

In October 1945, famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke,correctly predicted the use of orbital satellites while writing a paper titled: “Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?”

“The development of rockets sufficiently powerful to reach “orbital” and even “escape” velocity is now only a matter of years,” Clarke wrote in his paper printed in the technical magazine, Wireless World.

Clarke may have been thinking of the powerful V-2 rockets developed by Wernher von Braun, who also developed the Saturn V rocket used by NASA to reach the moon.

I first became curious about the Early Bird satellite, strangely enough, while watching a YouTube video of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali fighting Cleveland Williams.

This boxing match took place Nov. 14, 1966, inside the Astrodome in Houston.

“I’d like at this time to compliment the thousands of people in the United Kingdom, who, where it is nearly four-o’clock, are jamming the theaters over there, to see our telecast via the Early Bird satellite,” announced Don Dunphy, who was calling the fight from ringside.

Not only did the Early Bird satellite transmit live television broadcasts between North America and Europe, it also completed the switching for transatlantic telephone calls.

I located a May 7, 1965, LIFE magazine, and read an article about the satellite, cleverly titled: “The Early Bird Gets the Word.”

Yes indeed, folks, what a wonderful play on words those writers came up with back in 1965.

The Early Bird satellite’s outer surface was encased in some 6,000 silicon-coated solar cells it used for power.

These solar cells converted the sun’s energy into electricity to power the internal electronic components, as the satellite itself did not contain any batteries.

The satellite is noted for providing television splashdown coverage in December 1965, of the Gemini 6 spacecraft.

Early Bird was removed from operation in January 1969; however, it was reactivated in July, when the communications satellite to be used during the Apollo 11 moon mission failed.

It was then deactivated in August 1969.

In 1990, Early Bird was revived for a brief period in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

Intelsat (established in 1964 as the first commercial satellite services provider) uploaded a video of Early Bird’s April 6, 1965, launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, to its YouTube channel viewable here: http://tinyurl.com/Intelsat1L.

Real-time satellite tracking website: http://N2YO.com, monitors approximately 17,200 objects in the sky.

You can search where the IntelSat 1 F-1 Early Bird satellite is presently located, via its International Designator Code: 1965-028A.

Check out this link to see Early Bird’s current location: http://tinyurl.com/EarlyBirdL.

The 50-year-old Early Bird satellite still soars high above the Earth.


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