In the early days of the space race between the US and what was then known as the Soviet Union, NASA, (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was responsible for the American efforts. Before humans were sent into space, unmanned, artificial satellites were launched by both countries.
One such satellite was called Echo 1. Truth be told, it was actually a combination of a balloon and an artificial satellite. Previously, seven failed attempts had been made to send this object into orbit. On the first attempt, the balloon exploded 60 miles above the ocean and its shredded pieces falling back to Earth provided some spectacular views.
The telecommunication revolution got underway when this “satelloon” finally enjoyed a successful launch on August 12, 1960. This project was the brainchild of William O’Sullivan, who worked for the Langley Research Center during NASA’s infancy. Essentially, Echo 1 was the world’s first communications satellite.
Fully inflated, this object was 100 feet wide and could easily be seen by observers on the ground. The name Echo 1 was chosen to represent a basic concept of satellite communications: A signal is sent into space and then bounced off a satellite. Subsequently, the signal is picked up at a different location on Earth below. Unlike today’s active satellites that amplify signals before returning them to Earth from a geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above the Equator, Echo 1 was a passive satellite that simply bounced signals from one point on Earth to another.
It was constructed of an aluminized Mylar polyester film no thicker than a human hair. This “satelloon” enabled scientists at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey to hold voice communication with others at a NASA facility in California. Echo 1 likewise functioned as a transcontinental radio, telephone , and television signal reflector. In addition to being the world’s first communications satellite, it even conducted some measurements of atmospheric density.
The orbital altitude of Echo 1 was just under 1000 miles. Echo 2 was larger, and launched in 1964. Following Echo 2, interest in passive satellite communication came to an end. Because of their huge size in comparison to later satellites, the Echo devices were subjected to great amounts of solar radiation. Think of a large sail on a boat and its effect in strong winds. The solar “wind” that exists outside of Earth’s atmosphere thus distorted the orbits of both Echo 1 and Echo 2, and their positions eventually decayed. Echo 1 managed to stay in orbit until 1968, when it finally re-entered the atmosphere and burned up. Echo 2 met the same fiery fate a year later in 1969.
While the Soviet Union was soundly beating the US in the space race at that time, Echo 1 served as an early catalyst in changing that fact. Communication satellites have now been in use for over half a century and counting.