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The ‘Early Bird’ is still the word

Sept. 4, 2020
by Mark Ollig

In October 1945, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke foretold using space satellites, in an article titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?”

He described the idea of using Earth-orbiting “space stations” equipped with receivers and transmitters to relay radio communications between any two geographic locations beneath them.

Clarke wrote the space stations would be 26,000 miles above the Earth.

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

He may have been thinking of the long-range guided ballistic V-2 missile developed by Werner von Braun and used during World War II.

In the early 1960s, von Braun designed the 363-foot-tall, 6,400,000-pound Saturn V rocket used by NASA to send astronauts to the moon.

Clarke’s prediction became a reality April 6, 1965, when NASA launched the IntelSat 1 F-1 satellite, nicknamed “Early Bird.”

The name, Early Bird, comes from the saying, “The early bird catches the worm.”

Early Bird was the world’s first commercial communications satellite.

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

Inside the 85-pound satellite, the electronic components performed the switching magic for up to 240 concurrent transatlantic telephone calls. It also transmitted telegraph signals and facsimile communications between North America and Europe.

The Early Bird satellite used one channel for broadcasting television programs between the two continents.

The satellite could not simultaneously perform all these switching operations, so commercial companies vied for obtaining time slots 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).

Its outer surface included 6,000 silicon-coated solar cells used for converting energy from the sun into electricity to power the internal electronic components, as the satellite itself did not contain any batteries.

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

Early Bird’s orbital speed will circle and match the Earth’s orbiting speed and position itself in a specific location above its surface.

The satellite appeared to be suspended and motionless above the planet.

Ground satellite stations can then focus their antenna toward 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 satellite orbited over the same location between North America and Europe.

The satellite provided transmission for television splashdown coverage of the Gemini 6 spacecraft Dec. 16, 1965.

Gemini 6 failed on its first launch attempt Dec. 12; however, it launched three days later without incident.

Surprisingly, I first became curious about the Early Bird satellite while watching a YouTube video of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali fighting Cleveland Williams Nov. 14, 1966.

“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 boxing commentator Don Dunphy.

The success of Early Bird proved the practicality for using synchronous orbiting space satellites for commercial communications.

Early Bird ceased operation in January 1969; however, it was reactivated in July, when a communications satellite assigned to the Apollo 11 moon mission failed.

In August 1969, the satellite became deactivated.

NASA activated Early Bird for a brief period in celebration of the 25th anniversary of its launch.

According to NASA, as of today, “Early Bird is currently inactive.”

Intelsat (the first commercial satellite services provider) uploaded the video of Early Bird’s April 6, 1965, launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, to its YouTube channel: https://tinyurl.com/y4uvqn2s.

In the video, look for two famous Minnesotans; Hubert Humphrey, vice president of the United States, and Senator Walter Mondale applauding during the launch.

Real-time satellite tracking website, http://N2YO.com, is currently monitoring 21,300 objects in the sky. To locate a satellite, search by using its International Designator Code, name, space command ID, or launch date.

The 55-year-old Early Bird satellite still orbits above the Earth. Its International Designator Code is 1965-028A.

To see Early Bird’s current location, go to https://bit.ly/3gLNTSB.

The oldest US satellite still orbiting the Earth is the Vanguard 1, launched March 17, 1958.

It was a small satellite designed to test the space environment’s effects on a satellite and its operating systems while in Earth orbit.

Vanguard 1’s internal battery-powered transmitter stopped operating in June 1958. Its solar-powered transmitter functioned until May 1964.

The Vanguard 1 satellite will continue orbiting our planet until the year 2198.

Its International Designator Code is 1958-002B.

No word has been released for when the Early Bird satellite might re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

A May 7, 1965, LIFE magazine article about the satellite is cleverly titled, “The Early Bird Gets the Word.”

In 1965, the word was the Early Bird, which reminds me of the Minneapolis garage band The Trashman’s 1963 hit “Surfin’ Bird.”

“A-well-a don’t you know about the bird? Well, everybody knows that the bird is a word.”

Be safe out there, and remember; the early bird catches the worm.


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