SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, communications went global. July 12, 1962 the Telstar 1 satellite from AT&T became the first commercial spacecraft to beam television images from the United States to Europe.
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SIMON: But the satellite soon began to malfunction, radio activity scrambled its instruments, making it hard to talk to earth. The cause was human. It was the Cold War and the U.S. military had detonated atomic devices in space just the day before the launch of Telstar. In Hawaii, people had gathered on the beaches to watch the sky explode in eerie blue, red and green.
Walter Brown was one of the engineers who worked on Telstar 1. He joins us now from WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Dr. Brown, thanks for being with us.
WALTER BROWN: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: Now these detonations, I guess, were called the Starfish Prime nuclear tests. Did you know about them before you launched Telstar?
BROWN: I did not. My focus was so strongly on the Telstar issue, that I wasn't paying much attention to what else was going on in the world.
SIMON: Did anybody say maybe we ought to wait a week?
BROWN: No, we didn't. As a matter of fact, there was no anticipation that the consequences of this explosion would have been what it was.
SIMON: Well, help us understand what those consequences were.
BROWN: Well, the situation was that this nuclear explosion, which was detonated about 250 miles up in the sky introduced a huge, huge number of very high-energy electrons into the space that Telstar would be occupying starting a few hours later, as it turned out. And these electrons, because they're so energetic and there was so very many of them, did damage to the transistors of which ultimately resulted in the Telstar turning off during one of its transmissions.
SIMON: So was this just a mistake?
BROWN: I think it was a surprise. I believe that the people who set off the explosion did not anticipate there would be anything like this injection of high-energy electrons. I think it was a surprise to them and it still is not very clearly understood just how the explosion produced this set of electrons, but it surely did.
SIMON: What was it like for you to watch that first broadcast?
BROWN: Well, it was fantastic actually. I was in Maine in this ground station in Andover, Maine, and when Telstar came over and was turned on and when recognized that it was working, the director of the Telstar program had thumbs up and everybody in the place just set out a whoop that, wow, it works. That was a most exciting moment.
SIMON: Were you the kid in the room?
BROWN: I was among the younger people that were there. I was probably not the youngest one, but I was among the younger people, yes.
SIMON: I mean, I think a lot of us remember, of course, President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963 and I remember hearing that Europe could share a lot of what we saw on television instantaneously because of Telstar. It was tragic circumstance which underscored that we were getting knitted together as people around the world.
BROWN: Yes, well, that was a - you don't even think twice about where the signal is coming from unless you happen to have been somebody who was directly involved with it at the time. That was an era of lots of news interests, tragedies as well as triumphs.
SIMON: You know, I must say while we have the opportunity, we have a lot to thank you for. I mean, on our show that people are listening to this weekend, we talk to people in London. We talk to our correspondent in Berlin. We talk to people all over the world and think nothing of it.
BROWN: That's right. It's a given now.
SIMON: Well, thank you.
BROWN: Well, you're welcome. And thank you.
SIMON: Walter Brown was an engineer for Telstar 1, which launched 50 years ago this week. Dr. Brown, thanks for speaking with us.
BROWN: Scott, it was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.