Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


JFK’s Contribution to Global Communications

Posted on | November 21, 2013 | No Comments

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. – President John F. Kennedy, September, 1962

It was CLARKE~1Arthur C. Clarke, the author of many science fiction classics including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), who published a seminal article on the possibilities of satellites in the 1945 edition of a British journal, Wireless World. The former radar engineer conceived the idea of putting satellites into an orbit high enough above the earth so that they could maintain pace with the revolving ground below. He reasoned that a satellite circling the Earth at about 6,870 miles per hour, 22,300 miles above the equator, would need 24 hours to complete its orbit.

Three satellites, or as he called them, “rocket stations,” positioned in “geostationary orbit” approximately 120 degrees apart, could act as a worldwide telecommunications system. Each satellite could act like a fixed radio repeater tower. Together, they could provide interconnections between various points over the entire Earth and between each other. Geosynchronous meant that the antennas that received satellite signals did not have to move to track the satellites. Called “earth stations,” these satellite dishes sometimes were initially 50 meters in diameter to pick up the faint signals from the pre-photovoltaic satellites. Clarke’s idea helped propel the “Space Race” and the vision of a new global communications system connecting countries and peoples around the world.

We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of our 35th president. On November 22, 1963, shortly after noon, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas. Although he was only president for three years, he had an extraordinary influence on the development of our modern technological age, especially the rise (literally) of global communications and the fulfillment of Clarke’s vision.

President Eisenhower created NASA in 1958 in response to the Soviet Sputnik satellite launches. Still, Kennedy directed the space agency to send humans to the Earth’s Moon by the end of the 1960s. Concerns mounted after the 1961 successful launch and landing of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. JFK laid out an initial vision on May 25, 1961, in a State of the Union address before Congress. It was less than half a year into his first term, but just weeks after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Although initially committed to unmanned space exploration, Kennedy saw how putting humans into space captured the public’s imagination. The space agency needed billions of dollars to design and build the rockets and systems to put larger civilian and military payloads into space. He pushed astronaut flights to gather political and popular support for funding NASA.

In his “Urgent National Needs” speech, Kennedy emphasized the need to recover from the ongoing recession and also reinforced a commitment to freedom in the southern hemispheres, particularly in Vietnam. He stressed the dangers of the Cold War and what was perceived as a USSR advantage in military superiority, especially in space and their “powerful intercontinental striking force.”

Finally, he laid out the vision for space, specifying the importance of new and more powerful rockets and requesting $125 million for “accelerating the use of space satellites for world-wide communications.” A related concern was weather satellites that were becoming more useful in forecasting weather conditions and helping to avoid disasters.

In all, Kennedy asked for over $7 billion for “a great new American enterprise” in space. It was within this context of national urgency that he set out the initial vision of going to the Moon by the end of the decade.

A year and a half later, Kennedy reinforced the vision of a Moon landing in his speech at Rice University. In September 1962, while dedicating the new Manned Spacecraft Center (now called the Johnson Space Center) just outside of Houston, he emphasized the importance of science and technology and reinforced the importance of communications and weather satellites. He pointed out that the Mariner spacecraft was on its way to Venus and compared it to “firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the 40-yard lines.” The imagery was intentional; missiles with nuclear warheads that could pinpoint targets in the US were becoming a practical reality.

By conflating space with national and civil defense, he was able to mobilize the resources for a combined national effort to travel to the Moon and “do the other things”: close the missile gap with the USSR, circle the Earth with satellites helping ships at sea, connecting military operations, and predicting weather conditions, as well as become the leaders of international communications. The same rockets that would propel the astronauts to the Moon would first set up a global network of communications satellites.

Work had begun that year on the creation of a consortium that would create a fleet of orbiting satellites to provide global communications. The capital expenditures of space communication systems were so expensive that it took the Communications Act of 1962 to mobilize the resources of NASA, the Department of Defense and AT&T, the largest corporation the world at the time to create the new domestic monopoly Comsat. Though initially designated as a private enterprise on February 1st, 1963, Comsat required initial funding by the US government. Soon after, former Under Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Joseph Charyk, was named its first CEO. Comsat was chartered as a common carrier subject to the Communications Act of 1934 and its creation, the Federal Communications Commission. Given the extensive foreign relations nature of the company, the President was given the power to oversee its activities.

Comsat moved quickly to initiate the formation of Intelsat, an international telecommunications satellite consortium. In August of 1964, the organization was formed with 19 other countries with Comsat as the U.S. Representative and main owner. The percentage of U.S. ownership was 61 percent compared to the next two largest owners: the United Kingdom with 8.4 percent and France with 6.1 percent. Other countries were skeptical because of the satellite’s ability to bypass national boundaries. Intelsat was careful to work with established national Post, Telephone and Telegraph (PTT) entities and the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and eventually satellites were gradually accepted around the world.

With the backing of the United States, the Intelsat program proved to be very PHONHOMsuccessful for the development of international telecommunications. Although undersea telegraph cables have been operating since 1866 and since 1956 for voice communications, they could not keep up with global demand by the 1960s. Hughes Aircraft launched the first three experimental geostationary orbit satellites in 1963 and 1964. While Syncom-1 never functioned adequately, Syncom-2 transmitted telephone, telex, and data communications across the Atlantic to Africa and Europe. Syncom-3 was launched over the Pacific and repeated a similar performance. Intelsat- 1, or “Early Bird,” as it was named, became the world’s first commercial satellite when it was launched from Cape Kennedy on April 6, 1965.

Clarke’s vision of three geostationary “rocket stations” was realized in July of 1969 when Intelsat III was placed over the Indian Ocean Region. Launched Intelsat recoveryjust weeks before the Moon landing, Intelsat III offered 1,500 voice circuits or 4 TV channels and carried President Nixon’s congratulatory telephone conversation with the astronauts.

As more satellites were launched, Intelsat was criticized for its natural monopoly model. Satellite proposals like the Orion and Finansat had challenged the status quo but their business models were based on “skimming the cream” off of prime routes such as that between the US and Great Britain. Nevertheless, President Clinton finally privatized Intelsat in 2000 to further competition in global communications.

Advances in fiber optic cables also challenged the satellite model. An undersea communications cable can move terabits of data each second while satellites lag with hundreds of megabits. Undersea cables such as the 18,000 kilometer-long SEA-ME-WE-4 linking countries from France, Egypt, Singapore, and Indonesia have become international workhorses for the Internet. But by using spot beams, satellites can provide a tremendous amount of bandwidth for niche government, media, and corporate needs as well as provide necessary redundancy in case a cable is cut or otherwise damaged.

Although the dynamics have changed, JFK’s contribution to global communications lives on in a vibrant network of interconnected components that transmit our Facebook likes, blogs like this one, and other information and news that we value in our disparate, but global civilization.


Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2013, Nov 21) JFK’s Contribution to Global Communications.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor at the State University of New York in South Korea (SUNY Korea). Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii during the 1990s. He lives in Austin, Texas when not working in Korea.


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