Happy 50th Birthday to Echo 1, Grandpappy of Satellite Communications

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Echo 1, history's first passive satellite. NASA's Echo mission began rather poorly. A test launch had exploded so brightly, so spectacularly, that it prompted frightened calls up and down the entire eastern seaboard.

This same satellite birthed live, space-based global communications as we know it. The early test's fantastic failure was due mostly to the Echo 1's fantastic design: It was essentially an enormous, 30-meter-wide balloon full of nitrogen. As it rapidly inflated, 60 miles off the ground, the pressure differential between the bird's interior and the thin air of the upper atmosphere shredded the 0.01 millimeter-thin skin. The highly reflective fragments sent flashes of light in all directions. Witnesses said it looked like fireworks.


NASA wanted Echo to be the first passive satellite—basically a gigantic mirror that bounces signals from one point on the earth down toward another—ever assembled and launched. This was an important ambition for a nation that was almost uniformly terrified of lagging behind the Soviets in the space race. Both the USSR and the US had launched active satellites—which broadcast pre-recorded messages from the final frontier—but Echo was to be the first of its kind, holding the potential to massively expand our ability to communicate with one another.


When the Echo 1 finally reached orbit on August 12, 1960, it stayed there for eight years, and was visible to the naked eye over the entire planet. It's considered to have been seen by more people than any other manmade object in space. Ever. For NASA, it was an invaluable source of experimental data, and was used to send TV, phone, and radio transmissions across the US and around the world. For the US government, it was also wielded as an effective work of propaganda, a symbol of glowing American influence above the world.


But Echo 1's political meaning during the space race is happily forgotten. What's still with us is its legacy, having proven that satellite communications works. Earth's orbit is now crowded with satellites beaming information around, and, more often do not, they do not explode in shimmering, terrifying showers of light. But they're working on the Echo 1's same premise—and for that, we wish it a happy 50th birthday.

Skip to the middle of the video below for a look at the Echo 1 and its successful launch—between a generally wonderful display of midcentury space porn—when NASA was exciting enough to demand its own dramatic soundtrack.

UPDATE: We received an email this morning from Tiffany Nason, granddaughter of William J O'Sullivan, who oversaw the Echo project. We asked her to share her memories on Echo, her grandfather, and the satellite's legacy:

As a kid, everyone talked about him and what he did. My grandmother would regale us with stories of tea time with the first ladies when my grandfather had meetings with presidents. We have the National Geographic magazine from the front page cover of Echo, video footage from NASA's project interviewing him and his team, there's all sorts of letters signed by the president hanging on the wall, the video footage of him on TV shows, even a memorial stamp. We're all very proud to be part of his family and honor his work. His name doesn't appear a lot in connection to the satellite anymore—I've heard tall tales of having to pay encyclopedias for the mention, but the most sensical one is that NASA (NACA then) was really about having it be all about them and not the individuals. That changed slightly in the days of Buzz Aldrin and the great space heroes but even today it's about NASA and not the scientists. From what I can put together via family oral history and archived memorabilia, my grandfather definitely got his 15 minutes of fame but it seems that these days the world has really forgotten about Echo and it's significant contribution to global telecommunications (and shiny birthday balloons.)


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