Books of Interest to Mercurians

The Origins of Satellite Communications, 1945-1965, David J. Whalen, Smithsonian History of Aviation and Spaceflight Series
Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, 236 pages, $32.95

Conventional wisdom assumes that govern-ment research and development efforts—especially those of NASA—produced the satellite communications industry. Whalen’s book argues, however, that private corporations, namely, AT&T and Hughes Aircraft Com-pany, developed most of the earliest satellite technology, with the major exception of launch vehicle technology (rockets). They were willing to invest their own money in the technology, because they rec-ognized that the satellite communications market would more than repay their investment. AT&T designed and paid for the first real communication satellite, Telstar 1. Had the market been allowed to operate freely, AT&T would have launched their commercial low-orbit telephone satellite system in the 1960s.

However, NASA, the White House, and Congress intervened in order to show the world that the U.S. was going to win the space race, and that the bil-lions of dollars that the U.S. government planned to spend on that race would result in practical applications. Govern-ment intervention had several outcomes: the marginali-zation of AT&T in the field of satellite communications, the positioning of Hughes as the dominant commercial satellite manufacturer, the choice of geosynchronous as the preferred orbit for communication satellites, the establishment of a pubic-private monop-oly (COMSAT), and the formation of INTELSAT.

Whalen examines the policy and technology background behind the origins of satellite communica-tions, and provides a narrative history of developments from the launch of Sputnik to the decision by COMSAT in December 1965 to concentrate on geosynchronous orbit satellites. The epilog looks back at events since 1965.

David Whalen has been an engineer in the satellite communications industry for almost thirty years. He is currently a consultant living in Virginia. In addi-tion to technical degrees, he has a Ph.D. in Science, Technology, and Public Policy from George Washington University.

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