On This Day

NASA, Echo 1A

On This Day: US Launches First Successful Communications Satellite, Echo 1A

August 12, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 12, 1960, NASA launched the first communications satellite, Echo 1A. The satellite stayed in orbit for eight years and showed the potential for future communications satellites.

Echo 1A Satellite Successfully Launched

In the 1950s, Cold War enemies the United States and Soviet Union competed to dominate space. The space race began in earnest with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, in 1957.

Following the launch of Sputnik, the U.S. launched Echo 1 in 1958, but without success. Two years later, the U.S. launched its successor, the Echo 1A satellite.

The Echo 1A satellite—which became known merely as Echo 1—was a large, plastic balloon that weighed 136 pounds and was as high as a 10-story building. “Its skin [was] only .0005 in. thick—about half as thick as the cellophane on a pack of cigarettes,” described Time.
Launched on Aug. 12, 1960, Echo 1A rose to an altitude of more than 1,000 miles above Earth. It completed a full orbit once every 121.6 minutes. The satellite appeared as bright as a star in the sky and was noticed as far away as England, Australia and Japan. After the failed mission by Echo 1, the launch of Echo 1A was hailed as a great success.

The success of Echo 1A proved that microwave transmission to and from satellites in space was understood and demonstrated the promise of communications satellites,” explains the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The vehicle also provided data for the calculation of atmospheric density and solar pressure due to its large area-to-mass ratio.”

The Echo satellite stayed in orbit for nearly eight years, and set a precedent for the thousands of satellites that would follow it into orbit.

The Importance of Communication Satellites

There are thousands of satellites in orbit today. Satellites play a crucial role in communications and national defense, and make spying on other countries much easier and nearly impossible to prevent. Spy satellites play an important role in national intelligence, and often contain valuable and confidential information.

“Traveling at Mach 25, they pass over every spot on the face of the Earth twice a day, grabbing digital snapshots of places that the CIA—and the policymakers and military officers it serves—want to see. From missile fields in China or Russia to environmental disaster areas in the Sahel, the spy satellites provide a steady stream of black-and-white images,” MSNBC explains.

Satellites also play a prominent role in civilian life. Satellite television offers hundreds of channels and a high quality television signal regardless of a customer’s location. Satellite radio provides a clear signal from coast to coast.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines