Splashdown, Live Via Satellite

In 1968, getting TV broadcasts from a ship at sea was still tricky business.

TRANSATEL was small enough, and portable enough, to go practically anywhere in the world. (Robert Yowell)
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Because space travel and satellite communications grew up around the same time, television coverage of the first astronaut missions was primitive at best.  It wasn’t until Apollo 7—long after the Mercury and Gemini programs had ended—that viewers worldwide saw the first live color TV broadcast from a ship at sea, the USS Essex.   Splashdown coverage would become routine for subsequent Apollo missions, but in October 1968, it was still brand new.  And it happened thanks to the efforts of Roy Andres, a pioneer in satellite broadcasting.

Andres had started his career at RCA in 1946, and had worked on Relay and Telstar, the first active communication satellites in orbit.  In 1968, he became technical director at Western Union International  (WUI), who had been contracted by TV networks worldwide to provide satellite coverage of high-profile events like the Olympics and the Apollo missions. Although plans were already in place to relay video from Earth orbit and eventually the moon, and a couple of Gemini splashdowns had been broadcast in black and white by giant dish antennas, nobody had yet offered live color coverage of an ocean splashdown and recovery. Andres’ answer was the much smaller (and much easier to place on a ship) TRANSATEL, or Transportable Satellite Telecommunications Terminal. 

Built in partnership with General Electric, TRANSATEL consisted of a 15-foot-diameter parabolic dish antenna on a gyro-stabilized platform housed inside an inflated bubble. During its first use for Apollo 7, there were still a few bugs. While the antenna’s stabilization system kept the signal pointing at NASA’s ATS-3 satellite, the Navy communications radar and other gear onboard the Essex caused the picture to break up frequently. 

The quality improved on later flights, though, and the triumphant returns of the Apollo 8,  Apollo 11, and Apollo 13 crews were viewed by hundreds of millions around the world.  By Apollo 15, more capable Intelsat satellites over the Atlantic and Pacific provided even wider coverage, and Western Union used the exposure to tout their ability to provide live color TV from anywhere in the world. In 1971, a Western Union/Hughes system was used by the Shah of Iran to cover the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Kingdom of Persia.  Then in 1972, the White House had the same portable earth station deployed to China to televise the historic visit of President Richard Nixon. A year later, Colonel Thomas Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, who had been among the millions watching Nixon’s China visit, was inspired to make Elvis’ Honolulu concert a worldwide television event, which in turn became the “Aloha Via Satellite” album.

By the late 1970s “live via satellite” no longer even got flashed on the screen, because it was just assumed.  Like Apollo itself, the miraculous became ordinary.

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