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The Navy’s 85-foot-tall antenna at Point Mugu, California, relayed signals from the Syncom 3 satellite until 1966. (Boeing)

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For that satellite dish on your roof and the phone calls you make to Japan, you can thank Harold Rosen.

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Modern satellite communications, which today bring us everything from multi-channel television to the Global Positioning System and the nightly weather map, began as a salvage job to restore the prestige of Hughes Aircraft Company’s beleaguered Radar Department.

From This Story

It was late 1958, and the Los Angeles-area lab was developing a powerful, aircraft-mounted radar for U.S. jet interceptors to target incoming Soviet bombers. Then the Soviets turned to ballistic missiles. Department head Frank Carver went to see Harold Rosen, his young hotshot electrical engineer, who had been trained at the California Institute of Technology. The interceptor is now obsolete, Carver told Rosen, and the radar project is dead. Find something else to do.

The bureaucratic survival instinct does not usually inspire genius, but these were unusual times. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik the year before and was building bigger and better rockets almost monthly. The United States was racing to catch up.

“Space was on everybody’s mind. You wanted to be part of it, and here was an opportunity,” Rosen says. His tree-shaded ranch house in Santa Monica, the den tastefully furnished with testimonials of his accomplishments, is the same one he bought when he came to Hughes in 1956. Still spry at 83, Rosen consults part-time for Boeing, which took over Hughes’ satellite operations in 2000. He puts in two days a week on such jobs as designing the architecture of communications satellites and helping investigate problems with ones already in orbit.

For years researchers had been talking about the ability to transmit radio signals around the world by using Earth-orbiting satellites as a relay, but in the 1950s, it was still only a dream. There were several ways to make it happen. By 1958, the leading idea was to put a fleet of satellites in Earth orbit at an altitude between 200 and 1,200 miles. A ground station would link to one satellite as it came up over the horizon, then switch to another when the first one was gone. (Even the first active commercial communications satellite, Telstar, which was launched into an elliptical orbit in 1962, was supposed to have been part of a fleet.) A second way was to boost a satellite 22,000 miles above the equator, where it would be in geosynchronous orbit, moving at a speed that constantly kept it over the same spot on Earth. Whoever could put three of these in orbit equidistant from one another could receive, relay, and transmit signals to and from almost anywhere on the planet.

In a 1945 issue of Wireless World magazine, British scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had first outlined for a popular audience how such a system might work. While he wrote of a three-satellite network operating in geosynchronous orbit, he also described an orbiting space station manned by astronauts whose chief job was to change burned-out vacuum tubes. The arrival of the Space Age made Clarke’s orbital concept seem achievable.

Rosen hadn’t thought much about communications satellites, and didn’t know anything about Clarke’s vision, but in early 1959 he started talking to colleagues. Tom Hudspeth, an electronics engineer at Hughes and a ham radio operator, lamented the sorry state of international communications. To use transatlantic telephone service, you had to get in line. And there was no bandwidth for television, he complained. A communications satellite would change everything.

Rosen also sought out Don Williams, a brilliant, Harvard-educated, 28-year-old mathematician and inventor who had worked at Hughes before joining a startup company that built machines to detect dead cockroaches, cigarette butts, and other foreign objects in recycled-glass bottles. Business was good, but Rosen needed him, so he persuaded Hughes to pay Williams an annual salary of $22,000—very high at the time—and got him back. Williams was interested in navigation satellites; Rosen was not. But Williams wanted to put his satellite in geosynchronous orbit, and Rosen was very interested in that.

Then another colleague showed Rosen a journal paper written by two renowned Bell Laboratories engineers—Rudolf Kompfner and John Pierce—that described how to use space for transoceanic communications. The authors and Bell Labs were interested in low-altitude satellites. Rosen saw that low altitude had its virtues; from there, randomly spaced satellites could use omnidirectional antennas to receive and transmit signals. But he also found the approach sloppy, like surrounding Earth with a halo of whirling bowling balls. A geosynchronous system, by contrast, requiring only three satellites, was conservative and neat—“far more appealing to me,” he says now.

There were major challenges: how to transmit the signals; how to keep the satellite from wobbling or drifting out of orbit; whether the United States had enough rocket to lift a payload to 22,000 miles. But Rosen decided to go forward, and during the next four years, he, Hudspeth, and Williams built the world’s first high-altitude communications satellite. The Syncom program was the prototype for an industry that today has 275 satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

About Guy Gugliotta

Guy Gugliotta, a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a freelance science writer based in New York.

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