Telstar, Happy Birthday #history


Excerpt from The PC Pioneers

On this day in 1962 the Telstar communications satellite was launched

Telstar 1 was launched on 10th July 1962, successfully relaying through space many firsts – the first television pictures, first telephone calls, first fax images and establishing the first live transatlantic television programming.

Telstar 2, almost the same device, was launched on 7th May 1963 with the same goals.

In late 2013 both Telstar 1 and 2 were reported as still orbiting, though they cannot function of course.

Space engineering was key in the development of personal computers:

Personal computers came about because of an accumulation of ideas and incidents, innovations, individuals and institutions.

But if you do try to seek out a single moment in history that ignited the development of the personal computer then implausibly you need to travel back to a gulag labour camp in eastern Siberia.

It was a Ukrainian referred to there as convict #N1442, who would provide the vital catalyst that would accelerate real progress towards personal computing.

He was a scientist arrested in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1938.  Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned and accused of Trotskyist leanings, espionage, sabotage or conspiracy against the Soviet Union.

N1442 was badly beaten during his interrogation at the KGB headquarters.  His jaw was broken and he was convicted to serve a forced labour term in the Kolyma gold mines.  This was considered to be a death camp as many died there, some of exposure or malnutrition.  Many were simply overworked in the mines or became victims of accidents and beatings by guards and fellow inmates.

The harsh weather and poor diet contrived to give N1442 scurvy and he lost all his teeth.  Yet he survived all of this to be transferred to a camp where scientists and engineers were set to work on a number of major Soviet projects; he would serve six years in total.

Sergey Korolyov, aka convict N1442, worked on the design of both the Tupolev bomber (Tupolev was a fellow inmate) and the Petlyakov dive bomber, but progressively he was able to move towards working on rocket science.  This had been his interest in his pre-war career at the RNII, the Soviet Jet Propulsion Research Institute.

For the success of his work during WWII, Korolyov was given the rank of colonel in the Red Army and was well-decorated.  He was a trusted member of the team despatched to Germany just before the end of the war seeking to recover V-2 rocket technology.

The German war effort of course is renowned as a key birthplace of rocketry.  Russia and the USA, soon-to-become post-war superpowers, grabbed as many German rocket scientists as they could as a basis for their upcoming space race.

Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft… and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor.  Werner von Braun

Korolyov returned home accompanied by 150 German rocket scientists and helped to set up a new institute in the suburbs of Moscow.  From there he took the German V-2 design forward to develop the Soviet R-2, R-3 and R-5 ballistic missiles.  But his long-term interest was in using rockets for space travel and he proposed the creation of the R-7 for launching satellites from as early as 1954.

The years 1957 and 1958 were designated by the international scientific community to be the International Geophysical Year; the ‘year’ actually lasted for eighteen months.  As part of this ‘celebration’, US President Dwight D Eisenhower proudly announced on 29 July 1955 that Americans would launch a satellite as part of this special year.

Ten days later the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, aka its, gave Korolyov the go-ahead to launch a satellite in response to the American announcement.

In a little under a month Korolyov personally managed the assembly of a satellite he called Object PS-1.  It was launched by a modified two-stage R-7 rocket which had a chequered history to say the least.

Of previous launches the first R-7 lasted just 98 seconds.  The second failed to take off at all despite three attempts.  The third R-7 developed a longitudinal rotation and had to be exploded 33 seconds into its flight.  The fourth achieved take-off and flew for 6,000km (3,700 miles) but then had to be destroyed at an altitude of 10 km (6.2 miles) when its head separated on re-entry to the atmosphere.  The fifth had a successful launch but again exhibited a head problem.  Not terribly confidence inspiring.

So this latest modified R-7 was to be only the sixth attempt at launch, its payload was to be the Object PS-1.  Helpfully there was some degree of slack as this satellite was a tad smaller than the R-7 had been designed to handle.  This sixth R-7 was subsequently named the Sputnik Rocket and its payload became Sputnik 1, the Russian word meaning simply ‘satellite’.

Sputnik 1 achieved an elliptical orbit on 4 October 1957, travelling at 29,000km/hour (18,000mph) and taking 96.2 minutes on each orbit of Earth.  Its signal was listened to from all around the world for 22 days until its batteries died; it fell back to earth ninety days later on 4 January 1958.

The Sputnik launch threw the USA into complete disarray, initially not according to US leaders who dismissed it as merely a neat trick.  It was the US citizenry that developed a collective hysteria – they still had fresh recollections of the country’s unpreparedness for Pearl Harbour.  It was not rocket science to realise that with this technology the Russians would soon be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to any point on the globe.

A leading political aide, trying to muster some government enthusiasm, pointed out that the Russians had taken a whole four years to catch up with the US atomic bomb technology, only nine months to catch up with the hydrogen bomb, but now it was the US that would need to catch up in the space race.

Lyndon B Johnson, Vice President to John F Kennedy, later summed up the feelings of the  American public, ‘In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.’

The Russians compounded the injury when Sputnik 2 carried the first animal into orbit, a dog called Laika.  For propaganda purposes this was launched less than a month later to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution.


One development that sprung from all of this was the launch of ARPA, Advanced Research Projects Agency, they created IPTO, Information Processing Techniques Office, and in turn they forced the development of time-share systems and the ARPANET

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