Hughes engineer Harold Rosen’s team overcame technical and political hurdles to send the Syncom communications satellite into orbit 50 years ago
In the fall of 1957, the Soviet Union’s newly launched Sputnik satellite would regularly streak across the Los Angeles sky, a bright dot in the black night.
All it could do was broadcast beeps back to Earth, but the technical achievement by the communists had stunned America. Perhaps nobody was more taken aback than a group of engineers and scientists at the defense electronics laboratories of Hughes Aircraft in Culver City.
They would trudge up a fire escape to the roof and watch the satellite with a mix of astonishment, excitement, envy and fear. Among them was Harold Rosen, a young doctorate engineer from Caltech, who while he watched Sputnik was hatching an audacious plan to eclipse the Russians.
What he imagined by 1959 was a revolution in communications: an extremely lightweight, solar-powered telephone switching station in orbit 22,000 miles above Earth. In those days, an international telephone connection required making a reservation because the existing system — copper cables and radio signals — carried few calls. Many countries could not be called at all. A satellite could change all of that.
Rosen recruited two other engineers, Thomas Hudspeth and Don Williams, and began designing the electronics and the propulsion and power system needed for a communications satellite. Not only was the task technically tough, but they also were fighting many of the nation’s top experts who did not believe their idea would work. Even their bosses — at a company founded by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes — were not sure their project was worth a modest investment.
“I considered it me against the world,” Rosen said about the initial lack of government and industry support.
Inside their labs on Centinela Avenue, the men pushed the technology ahead at blinding speed and found key allies in government who were willing to bet on a trio of unknown engineers.
On July 26, 1963 — exactly 50 years ago — they launched a 78-pound satellite called Syncom that could receive signals from Earth and then transmit them back across the globe.