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Forty-seven years ago this week, the first International Telecommunications Satellite (Intelsat I) was launched into a geosynchronous orbit by a Thrust-Augmented Delta (TAD) launch vehicle.  Popularly known as Early Bird, the satellite holds the distinction of being history’s first commercial communications orbital platform.  It was also the first satellite to provide direct and quasi-instantaneous communication between the North American and European continents including transmission of television, telephone, and telefax signals.   Fired into orbit from LC-17A at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Tuesday, 06 April 1965, Early Bird consisted of a 28-inch diameter cylinder measuring 23-inches in height.  Spin-stabilized about its longitudinal axis, the satellite weighed just 85 lbs.  Power was provided by an array of 6,000 solar cells covering its external surface.  Early Bird was capable of handling 240 two-way telephone circuits or a single TV channel via a pair of 6-watt transmitters.  Though primitive by today’s standards, Early Bird functioned well its role as a communications satellite.  Among its many accomplishments, the satellite helped make possible the first live television broadcast of the splashdown of a manned spacecraft when Gemini 6 returned to earth in December of 1965.  Early Bird was deactivated in January of 1969 following a 48-month service period that began on Monday, 28 June 1965.  This service duration was well beyond the type’s original design life of 18 months.  When the Atlantic Intelsat satellite failed at a most inopportune moment, Early Bird was returned to operational status on Sunday, 29 June 1969 to support the Apollo 11 mission.  This reactivation period was brief and ended on Wednesday, 13 August 1969.  With the exception of a short period of reactivation in 1990 to honor its 25th launch anniversary, Early Bird has silently orbited the Earth ever since.  The Intelsat Program grew remarkably following the fledging flight of Early Bird so long ago.  Indeed, more than 120 Intelsat and Intelsat-derivative satellites have been orbited by a variety of American, Russian, French and Chinese launch vehicles since 1965.

Posted in Aerospace, History

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