Early Bird, the world’s first commercial communications satellite and the granddaddy of the Intelsat IV now in production, celebrated its fifth birthday April 6 after logging 3 billion miles in space and a faultless performance.
The birthday coincided with the opening of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics third Communications Satellite Systems conference at the International Hotel, where a giant cake replica of the remarkable bird was cut and served to NASA, Comsat and Hughes people who collaborated to bring into the world the tiny satellite with this record.
The Significance of It All
Dick Bentley, now assistant manager of the Communications Satellite Labs in Space Systems Division who was the Early Bird Program manager, cut the cake and reminisced about the satellite’s significance.
“Early Bird has been a model in every sense of the word,” Mr. Bentlley said. “Essentially, there have been no failures, even in the control system.” This is testimony to the ability of the people at Hughes to build highly reliable systems. Early Bird proved what can be done!
“Several years ago when we were forecasting this kind of reliability the promise sounded incredible. Not today. Most people in industry now speak of satellite lifetimes of 5 years. Some even go as high as 7 or 10 years. Early Bird is the basis for this confidence,” he added.
Early Bird’s success as the first commercial communications satellite has led to subsequent planning and implementation of commercial satellite programs.
Things Would Be Different
If Hughes had not won out and proved the feasibility of the synchronous altitude concept and station keeping techniques, and if Early Bird did not have the reliability exceeding that of the trans-Atlantic cables, the whole approach to communications satellites would well be drastically different today.
Probably the greatest spinoff of the Early Bird experiment, and it was just that, will be its great impact on and benefit to people everywhere. Every place on earth can be linked to every other place by a worldwide communications network featuring satellites and low-cost ground stations.
When historians record the genesis of this network, valued at billions of dollars, Early Bird must certainly will be listed as the father of it all.
This, again, is a tribute to the contributions of the people at Hughes who had the vision, the courage of their convictions, and technical ingenuity to design and build a spacecraft that not only has met all objectives but has exceeded the contractual requirements in every way.
Operational for nearly four years, Early Bird was retired from active service by Comsat a year ago but was called into service for the Apollo 11 mission. Two months later it again was placed on reserve status. But it still can chirp, anytime its needed.
See “World’s First Commercial Communications Satellite at