Beyond the Horizon

The history of satellites

Presentation held at the 5. Int. EURISY Youth Forum in Bristol / UK in November 1996
Project Team "GANYMED": A. Soucek, T. Triffterer, M. Lacher, R. Kainhofer
Timetable | Introduction | 1957-1970 | 1970-1980 | 1980 - now(=1996)


USA USSR   Europe
Dec 1957: Vanguard 1 launch fails 

1 Feb. 1958: Explorer 1 (cylinder: 2m long, : 15 cm) the first American satellite is launched 

17 Feb. 1959: Vanguard 2 (the first satellite with meteorological devices on board) 

Aug. 1959: Explorer 6 takes the first photograph of the earth

4 Oct. 1957: Sputnik, the first satellite ever is launched (ball with 58 cm , 83.6 kg) 

With Sputnik II the dog LAJKA flies to space and survives 54 circuits

Europe??? - sound asleep... 
April 1960: The first satellite entirely dedicated to meteorology, TIROS 1 is launched 

4 Oct. 1960: The first communications satellite, called COURIER 1B (227 kg, 130 cm ), is launched with a capacity of recording 68,000 words/min 

Aug. 1960: ECHO 1, a passive balloon satellite is launched 

April 1965: INTELSAT 1 ("Early Beard") is the first commercial communications satellite also used for TV 

1966-68: DSCS-I is the first series of American military satellites 

20 July 1969: 1st man on the moon: Just a small step...

12 April 1961: 1st man in space (Juri Gagarin) 

1962: The Cosmos program starts with the task of exploring the atmosphere 


1965: Proton explores the cosmic radiation 

March 1966: Luna 10 is the first spacecraft to orbit the moon


26 Apr 1962: ARIEL 1, a cooperation between USA and the UK, is the first satellite with European participation 



15 Dec 1964: San Marco 1, an Italian meteorological satellite, is the first European satellite 

The 60ies in European satellite research: CHAOS, CHAOS, CHAOS, because the countries do not communicate and only follow their own paths. Most of those lead nowhere as a result.

1970: Uhuru: map of heaven in x-ray spectrum 


1972: Copernicus (OAO-3) - used for UV astronomy 


Aug. 1975: Cos-B - Gamma-ray astronomy (NASA/ESA) 

Nov. 1978: The Einstein-Observatory (HEAO 2) is launched. It is the first fully imaging x-ray telescope.

1970: Intercosmos starts 

April 1971: launch of space station   Saljut 1 

Nov. 1971: Foundation of Intersputnik, the Russian counterpart to Intelsat 



The 70ies are the decade of the Saljut space stations.





1975: ESA is formed, replacing the ESRO satellite and ELDO launcher organizations. 

Nov. 1977: Meteosat 1 is launched. The satellites of the Meteosat series are owned by Eumetsat

May 1978: OTS (Orbital Test Satellite), the first ESA telecommunications satellite is launched.


Jan 1983: IRAS, an international coproduction (USA, GB, NL) is the first infrared satellite and one of the most important astronomical satellites. 

April 1984: rescue operation on the stricken SOLAR MAX satellite. 

28 Jan 1986: Explosion of the Space shuttle "Challenger" 

Oct. 1988: deployment of the TDRSS 2 satellite by the crew of Discovery 

Nov. 1989: COBE, which measures the fluctuations of the cosmic background


April 1982: Salyut 7, the last station of the Salyut series is launched. 



Feb. 86: The space station MIR is launched.


June 1983: Launch of ECS-1, the first satellite of Eutelsat, an inner european satellite communications system. 

July 1985: Launch of GIOTTO, which later meets 2 comets

July 1989: The telecommunications satellite Olympus is launched by ESA

April 1990: Hubble Space Telescope; the most expensive satellite (NASA/ESA), its mirrors contain errors. 

Oct. 1990: Launch of Ulisses (NASA/ESA), which flies over both poles of the sun. 

Dec 1993: Correction of the Hubble Space Telescope mirrors with a system of lenses. 

Dec 1995: SOHO - Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (NASA/ESA)


After the end of the USSR, the Russian space program is in a bad crises. Will it ever recover? Mars 96 was one of the last attempts, but: 

Nov. 1996: The mission Mars 96 fails.

Aug. 1989-93: Hipparcos collects data of the positions/movements of a million stars. 

1991: ERS-1 uses radar instruments to survey the earth's surface day and night and in all weather conditions. 



4 June 1996: The first launch of an Ariane 5 spacecraft ends in an explosion, which throws back the european satellite program.

In spring 1995 our Project team "GANYMED" created a presentation about astronomy lasting 2 hours, which he held at every grammar school in Salzburg. The aim of this presentation was to pass on our fascination for astronomy to our audience. When we presented this projects at the 4th EURISY youth forum in Noordwijk/NL, we were invited to hold a part of our presentation at the 5th forum in Bristol.
It is not a highly scientific presentation, but - as we hope - a joyful trip through satellite history:  

Part 1 of 3:
The period 1957 - 1970 (the first steps in satellite engineering)

At this very minute more than 2300 satellites are circling and working above our heads, about 4800 have already been launched. And keep in mind: All these are electronic machines developed, built and brought into space by human beings. Eighty years ago only crazy people could have imagined such achievements. But after years of intensive research by people like Konstantin Edoardovich Tsilkovsky, Hermann Obert, of course Wernher von Braun and many, many others, the beginning of the satellite era is marked on the 4th October 1957 with the launch of the Russian satellite "Sputnik 1". This name simply means "companion", and the satellite was a ball of 58 cm in diameter and a weight of 83.6 kg. And that was not the only occasion where the USSR was way out in front of the USA, because just a few days later, the Russians launched their second satellite, Sputnik II. This satellite had a passenger: The dog LAJKA, which survived for about one week and did 54 whole circuits around the earth. Then it was put to sleep shortly before the oxygen ran out. This "experiment" aroused outrage around the earth and LAJKA became a symbol for the fight against animal experiments.

For the USA, of course, it was like a blow on the head that the USSR had managed to launch a satellite before them, especially as the first American launch, the launch of Vanguard 1 in December 1957 ended with a spectacular failure. Due to these 2 factors - Sputnik and the Vanguard failure - , the USA tried even harder, and in February 1958 the first American Satellite, the cylindrical "EXPLORER 1", was launched successfully. To be honest, the first satellites of both the USA and the USSR were modestly successful and most of them did not "live" longer than a few days. Nonetheless, the Explorer satellites had their successes: For example Explorer 6 was the first satellite to take a photograph of the earth in August 1959.

In April 1960, the first entirely meteorological satellite, called "TIROS 1", was launched by the USA, and in October of the same year, the first communications satellite, "Courier 1b" went into orbit with a capacity of recording 68.000 words per minute. By then, of course, the USA had caught up with the USSR.

You may now ask about the beginnings of European satellites or at least European participation in satellites. Well, in April 1962, the meteorological satellite "ARIEL 1" was launched, which was a co-operation between the USA and the UK. The first entirely European satellite was the Italian meteorological Satellite "San Marco 1", launched in December 1964. In the 60ies you can not really speak of a European satellite program, because the European countries taking part in the world-wide race for the space, did not communicate and just followed their individual paths. As a result most of those went nowhere. America and the USSR, however, worked hard to build up satellite systems for world-wide communications and mainly for military purposes. An example is the "DSCS-I" series, established in the years from 1966 to 1968, which was the first series of American military satellites

Part 2 of 3:
The period 1970 - 1980 (the decade of the space stations)

Spurred by the moon landings of the Apollo program, the 70ies were the time of manned space travel. The USA as well as the Soviet Union built up their own space stations. The first of these was Salyut 1, which was launched on 19 April 1971. Two months later three Cosmonauts died on their way back home from the space station. This accident caused the Russians to stop the manned space travel program for about 2 years. The one and only American space station Skylab, launched in 1973, also faced serious problems in space.

Nevertheless, the topic of our lecture are satellites, and now I want to mention a few satellites of the 70ies, some are well known, others might be new to you:

Uhuru (1970): Launched in December 1970, Uhuru is the first x-ray satellite that did methodical research on the field of radio astronomy. It discovered quite many radio sources like the Andromeda galaxy and some other radio sources within our galaxy.

Heras (1972): 1972 was the beginning of the German Heras program to analyze the high layers of our atmosphere.

Landsat (1972): In the same year the first out of a series of 5 Landsat satellites was launched by the USA. It was equipped with three video cameras and 4 multispectral sensors. Its resolution comes to 80 m, the resolution of Landsat 4 and 5 comes to 30 m. The aim of its mission was to observe woods, fields, the air pollution and the oceans. The Landsat satellites supplied us with much data, which will help us to find new deposits of water, minerals and oil.

Copernicus (OAO 3 - 1972): The Orbiting Astronomical Observatory was used to detect cosmic x-ray and UV radiation, which could not reach the earth because of the absorption in the atmosphere. Copernicus was equipped with an 81-cm telescope to observe young stars, as well as with 3 x-ray sensors.

Meteosat 1 (1977): In November 1977, the first of a series of European meteorological satellites, Meteosat 1, was launched. They are all run by EUMETSAT.  

Part 3 of 3:
The period 1980 - now (the time of modern satellites)

By the end of 1988, over 3000 satellites had been launched by the spacefaring nations of the world. We have heard some of the most important moments during the - I might say - breathtaking development of satellite technology. Last but not least remains the latest decade: the years between 1980 and 1996!

To start with one of the most successful astronomical satellites, we have to mention the famous IRAS. Built as an international co-operation, IRAS - the "InfraRed Astronomical Satellite" - should become one of the most important scientific missions ever to be launched. But apart from that, this satellite was also a giant leap forward to technology: To avoid IRAS from emitting Infrared radiation itself, the telescope is cooled down to very low temperatures. It was the task of the USA to find a suitable method to meet this difficult demand. The UK was responsible for the ground station (mission control), whereas the Netherlands had to build the satellite itself. On 23rd January 1983, shortly after dawning, the first IR observatory was launched without any problems...

In April 1984, astronauts George Nelson and Jim van Hoften performed a successful rescue operation on the stricken Solar Max satellite. Launched on Valentines Day 1980, the Solar Maximum Mission carried seven instruments that concentrated on solar flares. The spacecraft was launched into an orbit inclined at 28.5, but a failure in its attitude control system effectively rendered it useless. The 11th shuttle mission (Challenger on 41-C) was devoted to rescue Solar Max. The mission was successful, although there had been some major problems concerning the MMU. Solar Max could continue its mission and return much more information on the sun.

On 22nd February 1986, one month after the Challenger launch disaster, the French space agency CNES launched the first commercial remote sensing satellite outside the superpowers. Known as SPOT (Satellite Probatoire d'Observation de Terre), it soon lived up to its name as the "satellite for earth observation"... Within months, it was in the news: its high resolution images of the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union revealed smoke and fire at the reactor site...

The successful deployment of the second TDRSS satellite by the crew of Discovery in October 1988 was a piece of good luck in this programme. The TDRSS satellites are the largest privately owned comsats ever built. TDRSS 1 was launched on Challengers maiden flight when its booster rocket failed to fire properly, TDRSS 2 was lost on Challengers last flight, 73 seconds after lift-off on 28 January 1986... In the meantime, two new spacecrafts allow 23 satellites to communicate simultaneously with the earth, such as Hubble Space Telescope.

The successful story of COBE, the COsmic Background Explorer, nearly ended before its launch... Originally, the satellite should be launched by a DELTA rocket, but space agencies agreed on using the shuttle. As a result of the Challenger disaster, the start of the COBE mission had to be canceled - at least for some years. Finally, COBE was launched successfully in November 1989. I think everyone can remember the great days in April 1992, when the COBE discovered temperature fluctuations some 500 mill light years away - moments to remember for cosmology...

Probably the most attractive missions, the best-known images during the 80ies and 90ies were the various flights of spacecrafts across our solar system. Names like Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini of Magellan are common to everyone. Is it destiny or rule that these projects always become more popular than earth orbiting satellites? - I think it is logical. To explore new worlds hidden in the everlasting coldness of outer space, seems to be much more exciting than reading calculation on the humidity of the atmosphere...

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Challenger accident has been the "knock-on" effect in delaying a number of solar system exploration missions. Now, at the end of 1996, we can look back and see how ESA's and NASA's highflying plans became reality - or not...

But this short - or close - look back can be done another time. For today, we want to finish our short journey through the years of satellite development.  

Please remember that these 25 minutes were only a little part our of our lecture. It was designed to inform pupils about space travel and the importance of man's presence in space. Maybe you can follow our example. We would be happy if you also try to pass on your fascination to young people. Because these pupils are the future for space research, they are the scientists and technologists of tomorrow...

Reinhold Kainhofer,, Last updated: Spring 1997