It might strike one as rather quaint now, half a century on. But with an estimated five million copies sold, “Telstar” the hit single, helped to mark the dawning of the space age. Named for the trail-blazing communications satellite that went into orbit only five weeks before its 1962 release, it was the first single by a British band to simultaneously sit atop both the UK and US Billboard charts.
It was a heady-time. Just the previous year President John F. Kennedy had made his “decision to go to the moon” speech in light of the burgeoning space race with the USSR. As an international collaboration between AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, the British General Post Office, and France’s National Post, Telegraph and Telecom Office…and very much resembling the then-new Addidas black/white paneled soccer ball (marketed as the Telstar), Telstar 1 was the first-ever privately-sponsored space launch.
Shot into low orbit from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta rocket on 10 July 1962, it completed an elliptical trip around the earth once every 2 hours and 37 minutes. Despite what proved to be an incredibly brief working life, it relayed the first telephone calls, telegrams and faxes to be transmitted through outer space, as well as the first taped and live intercontinental television broadcasts.
A few weeks after its launching, when a transatlantic TV signal was made publicly available, a broadcast was hosted by Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley in New York and the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby in Brussels. After live pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower were relayed, President Kennedy was slated to speak. However, the signal was acquired before he was ready and a short segment of a televised baseball game between the Cubs and the Phillies at Wrigley field was shown first. From Chicago the broadcast switched to JFK in Washington, DC and then to Cape Canaveral, Quebec City and finally to Stratford, Ontario.
Although it would handle more than 400 telephone, telegraph, fax and television transmissions, the world’s first communication satellite went out of service only a few months later. The main culprit was Starfish Prime, a high-altitude nuclear warhead tested by the U.S. Military in the Van Allen Belt (located in the Earth’s magnetosphere) where Telstar was launched into orbit the following day. A Soviet test soon followed and the immense increase in radiation overwhelmed the tiny satellite’s delicate transistors that November.
Of course here in this November, 50 years on, we know that communication satellites in their thousands have been launched into space, which is pretty much what can be said about “Telstar” the record. Written and produced by songwriter, producer and electro-wizard Robert George “Joe” Meek, “Telstar” was recorded in Meek’s own tiny studio, located above a shop on the Holloway Road in North London. With guitars, drums and electronic clavioline played by the Tornados (who would go on to serve as Billy Fury’s backing group), Meek then added additional “space age” effects.
It was an immediate international hit upon its release…fittingly, for a single named after a satellite that was also responsible for synchronizing time between the US and UK to within 1 microsecond of each other. Poignantly perhaps, “Telstar” the record would continue to chart long after its namesake had been decommissioned, while Telstar, the satellite continues to make its way around the earth every 2 hours and 37 minutes and is occasionally visible to this very day.