On Aug. 12, 1960, Echo 1, NASA’s first communications satellite that was proficient in transmitting signals to other locations on Earth, was launched with the assistance of a balloon 1,000 miles (1,609 km) above the planet.
The satellite was built by the G.T. Schjeldahl Company in Minnesota. Echo 1 was a giant 100-foot metallic balloon that consisted of 31,416 square-feet (2,918 square-meter) of Mylar plastic film, four pounds (1.8 kg) of reflective aluminum coating and two radio tracking beacons powered by 70 solar cells and five storage batteries. All together, the “satelloon” weighed 132 lbs (60 kg).
Although it is generally known as Echo 1, it is officially identified as Echo 1A because of the failure of a Delta rocket that carried the satellite on May 13, 1960.
It was launched into orbit functioning as a reflector and not a transmitter. It was also sent into orbit flat and then inflated in space. Once it would be in a low planetary orbit, a signal would be dispatched to it and then reflected off of its exterior and returned back to Earth.
The first successful NASA communications satellite was launched three years after Russia launched its Sputnik and nearly three years after NASA launched its very first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit.
Echo 1 contained the first live voice communication through satellite that was delivered by former President Dwight Eisenhower:
“This is one more significant step in the United States' program of space research and exploration being carried forward for peaceful purposes,” said the former Commander-in-chief. “The balloon, which has reflected these words, may be used freely by any nation for similar experiments in its own interest.”
The machine was also quite resilient and robust because it survived meteor showers. However, was susceptible to sunlight, which hit it back into Earth’s atmosphere. On May 24, 1968, Echo 1 engulfed in flames upon its re-entry.
Another Echo satellite was launched into orbit shortly after. But NASA later made the decision to launch satellites that could transmit data, rather than bounce off signals.
“Echo 1 not only proved that microwave transmission to and from satellites in space was understood and there would be no surprises but it dramatically demonstrated the promise of communication[s] satellites,” wrote director of the NASA satellite communications program, Leonard Jaffe.
“The success of Echo [I] had more to do with the motivations of following communications satellite research than any other single event.”
Echo 1 helped lay the groundwork of modern day satellite communications and the everyday complex smartphone that is held in the hand of most Western consumers.
The National Museum of American History transferred the satellite to the Museum in 2003. It is currently not on display and is either on loan or in storage.