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Telstar Launch Was Glorious Day For U.S. Technology With BC-Telstar Anniversary

July 6, 1987

MURRAY HILL, N.J. (AP) _ The success of Telstar a quarter century ago sent sober scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories into emotional orbit.

″Perfect, perfect 3/8″ one exulted on July 10, 1962, after the first communications link was established. ″Smoothest thing we’ve ever done,″ said another.

Eugene O’Neill, the project director, sat back in his chair at the Holmdel, N.J., control center and turned a triumphant thumb’s up.

As a forerunner of modern communication satellites, Telstar embodied the New Frontier spirit of the Kennedy administration. It even inspired a twangy electric guitar tune, ″Telstar,″ that was recorded by The Tornadoes and hit No.1 on the pop charts in ’62.

At the time, Telstar was only an experiment - a 3-foot-wide, 170-pound sphere using unproven components and guided by unseasoned operators. But the satellite was tested in front of an audience of millions, who were filled with hopes that the odd-looking device could bring the world closer together through global communications.

″It was ’The Perils of Pauline,‴ recalled O’Neill, the retiree who is known around AT&T Bell Laboratories as ″Mister Telstar.″

Fortunately, everything worked, starting from the moment of Telstar’s 4:35 a.m. launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., until its first telephone and television transmissions around 7:30 that evening.

The first raspy phone call over Telstar paired AT&T Chairman Fred Kappel with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. A day later, French singer Yves Montand crooned live to an American audience. Within weeks, President Kennedy was addressing Europeans on live television.

″We would have preferred a little more anonymity for our first launch,″ O’Neill remembered. ″But in retrospect, it was absurd to think we could do this quietly and out of the public eye.″

The public success of Telstar was a high point in the history of AT&T Bell Laboratories and another example of how American technology in the early 1960s was on top of the world - the Soviets’ Sputnik and advanced rocketry notwithstanding.

″It was the high point of people’s careers,″ said Hugh Kelly, another Bell Labs retiree, who directed a receiving station in Pleumeur-Bodou, France.

Bell Labs veterans who gathered in Murray Hill for an anniversary dinner still wonder what might have been.

″What would have happened if this nation had kept that team at work?″ asked John Mayo, an executive vice president at Bell Labs. ″From a national competitiveness point of view, I wonder what we could have done.″

″I think it’s something that Bell Labs will never, ever, possibly see again,″ said R.E. Straile, an engineer specializing in chip fabrication.

BellLabs needs to strengthen its sense of purpose, agreed Alfred MacRae, director of satellite communications and signal processing at Bell Labs.

But MacRae added, ″Perhaps we don’t give ourselves due credit for some of the things we do. There’s tremendous respect for Bell Labs as an organization.″

O’Neill said he was ″absolutely flabbergasted″ by the popularity of Telstar with an American public that was hungering for world harmony.

″The hopes and expectations were overblown. The one world, the world-at- peace sort of dream obviously hasn’t materialized,″ he said. ″It was a milestone of some significance in communications, but human nature doesn’t change.″

Kelly concurred. Satellites bring people closer together, he said, ″But you find out you don’t like them sometimes.″

End Adv July 5

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