History of spaceflight and satellite communications

Space flight history timeline: The following represents a selected history of Spaceflight and of Satellite Communications. Comments and suggestions for additions would be welcomed; please send to our webmaster


Current status of today's satellite industry

1869 First known fictional conception of a satellite and space station


Publication of Arthur C Clarke’s paper outlining use of three geostationary space stations to provide “global” coverage for telecommunications

October 4, 1957

First artificial satellite, launched by Russia.  Sputnik 1

February 1, 1958

First satellite launched by USA.  Explorer 1

December 8, 1958

First communications satellite, broadcasting a taped message.  Score

October 13, 1959

First meteorological satellite.  Explorer 7

August 12, 1960

First telephone call via satellite. Echo 1(A) First passive telecommunications satellite

April 12, 1961

First man in space.  Yuri Gagarin, Vostok 1

April 26, 1962

First UK satellite.  Ariel 1

July 10, 1962

First active telecommunications satellite.  Telstar 1

July 26, 1963

First synchronous telecommunications satellite.  Syncom 2

August 19, 1964

First geosynchronous telecommunications satellite.  Syncom 3

April 6, 1965

First Intelsat satellite.  Intelsat 1, also known as Early Bird

November 5, 1967

First geosynchronous meteorological payload.  ATS 3

July 21, 1969

First manned lunar landing.  Apollo 11

October 28, 1971

First UK-launched satellite.  Prospero

May 30, 1974

First direct broadcasting satellite.  ATS 6

December 19, 1974

First 3-axis stabilised satellite.  Symphonie 1

July 16, 1979

Creation of Inmarsat, initially using leased capacity on Marisat, MARECS and Intelsat-V spacecraft

April 6, 1984

First in-orbit repair of a satellite.  Shuttle / SMM

June 15, 1988

First private-sector communications satellite. PAS-1

December 11, 1988

Launch of Astra 1A

October 30, 1990

Launch of Inmarsat’s first satellite.  Inmarsat II F1

August 3, 1995

PanAmSat became the world's first private-sector company to provide global satellite services with the launch of its third satellite.  PAS-4

September, 1998

Failed first launch, Globalstar low earth orbit satellite constellation

November 1, 1998

Launch of service, Iridium low earth orbit satellite constellation

April 1999

Privatisation of Inmarsat

June 2001

First successful launch, ICO medium earth orbit satellite constellation

July 2001

Privatisation of Eutelsat and Intelsat


History of spaceflight and satellite communications timeline in more detail

2013: Current status of the satellite industry


1869: The first known fictional idea of a satellite being launched into space was a short story called "The Brick House" written by Edward Everett Hale. The story describes how a brick built sphere that measured 200ft in diameter, designed to be used as a navigational aid, was launched accidentally with people inside. This is also the first known description, albeit fictional, of what is effectively a manned space station. This story was serialized in "The Atlantic Monthly" in 1869. Top of page

1945: In the autumn of 1945, Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (16.12.1917 – 19.03.2008) who was an electronics officer in the RAF and a member of the British Interplanetary Society, published an article that proposed a satellite communication system utilising manned satellites. Clarke described how these satellites would orbit the earth in 24 hour cycles to distribute television programmes. The same article was published several years later in "The Exploration of Space".  This proposal had little lasting effect. Top of page

In 1954 the American John R. Pierce (27.03.1910 – 02.04.2002) was first person to meticulously assess the viability of satellite communications. He subsequently lead the team at Bell Telephone Laboratories that built the first active telecommunications satellite (Telstar 1) to be launched by Nasa on a Detta rocket from Cape Canaveral on 10th July 1962. This satellite measured 876.30mm (34 inches) in length and weighed 77kg (170lbs).Top of page

1957: First artificial satellite, launched by Russia.  Sputnik 1 Top of page

The Soviet Union were the first to successfully launch an artificial satellite into the earth's orbit, catching the Americans off-guard and becoming the historical leaders in the Space Race. The Sputnik 1 measured only 58cm (22.8 inches) in diameter and weight a slight 83.6kg (184lbs).  Top of page

1958: The success of the Soviet Union prompted the USA to become more proactive in technological advancement and resulted in the launch of Explorer 1 the following year. Top of page

1958: saw the launch of the world's first communication satellite. Using the Atlas rocket for the first time as a launch vehicleSCORE (Signal Communications Orbit Relay Equipment), broadcast to the world a tape-recorded Christmas message from President Eisenhower on a short-wave frequency. Top of page

1959: Explorer 7 was successfully launched on October 13th, 1959 from Cape Canaveral, attached to the Juno II rocket. This satellite was just 75cm high and wide and weighed only 41.5kg. It was designed to measure solar x-ray, trapped energetic particles, Lyman-alpha flux and heavy primary rays. It was also designed to collect micrometeoroid penetration data as well as making a study of the heat ratio of the earth to atmosphere. As a result of this mission, it was discovered that the Earth absorbed more of the sun's energy that was originally presumed and it verified that it was possible to measure and calculate changes in the global heat budget. This satellite went out of use in August 1961 but is still in orbit.Top of page

1960: After the initial failure of the Delta rocket carrying the first Echo (Echo 1), Echo 1A was successfully launched into a low Earth orbit from New Jersey on August 12, 1960. This metallised balloon satellite acted as a signal reflector, originally conceived to bounce microwave transmissions redirecting the signals across continents. The 30.5m diameter balloon allowed transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio and television signals to be received. Top of page

1961: A cosmonaut from the Soviet Union named Yuri Gagarin became the first Man in space. The spacecraft Vostok 3KA, which was launched on April 12th 1961, and made its place in the worldwide history. This was not only the first time man had entered outer-space but also the first manned space orbit. This ground breaking space flight that took Yuri Gagarin on one complete ordbit of the planet earth, lasted 108 minutes from launch to landing. Top of page

1962: Telstar 1 was launched on July 10, 1962 and became the first satellite to successfully transmit television picture signals and telephone communication signals through space. Top of page