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Satellite communication (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

To me, to think of a satellite orbiting the earth and beaming radio signals around the globe seems like something out of science fiction -- and in a sense it actually is.

The prime mover behind satellites was an engineer named John Robinson Pierce, who became interested in space as a teenager. He devoured the articles in Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine. As he said "My reading took me into a world in which spaceships and communication through space by radio were commonplace."

He became so involved in the world of science fiction that he even wrote a few stories himself. He didn't, though, lose, his grasp on the real world. He used the money he'd earned from writing stories to pay tuition for engineering school of CalTech.

From CalTech he moved to Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey. At the time they were setting up a system using radio waves to replace telephone wires. This required the Lab to place antennas on hilltops every thirty miles or so because any hills would cut the signals off. Pierce was struck by the idea that it would be easier to communicate between the moon and the earth, than across the United States, adding "if only one could put the apparatus in place [on the moon]."

He though little more about this until an engineers club invited him to speak because of his fame as a science fiction writer. Their only restriction was that he must talk about space. So, he returned to his idea about communicating with the moon. Not satisfied to just make up fictions about it, he put his engineering training to work and made calculations to estimate the cost and the type of equipment needed. He noted the only thing missing: How to get the stuff in space. Then, in 1957, the Soviet Union sent up Sputnik, and the rocket age began.

Seeing now that space satellites were feasible, Pierce set out to prove his idea. A year after Sputnik he saw a photo of a military weather balloon. Its shiny surface, he felt, was perfect for a communications satellite. With a bit of pleading, he got permission to use the weather balloon.

Called the Echo system, it was launched on August 12, 1960. The first message to be broadcast was by President Eisenhower and was sent from California to New Jersey. This message bounced off the shiny surface of the balloon. Thus proving that satellite communication was possible.

And now it has revolutionized our world. Today, people think nothing of telephone calls or live telecasts from anywhere on Earth, but until Pierce's pioneering work, the former was difficult and the later unthinkable.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises