35      along his path, the sky!

Shango marches with strength
along his path, the sky!  

On July 10, 1962, the Telstar 1 satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The satellite, ‘just slightly larger than a beach ball’, was mounted atop a Thor-Delta rocket: an expendable launch system comprising three stages of missiles and rockets designed to deliver it into orbit and set its spin stabilisation system in motion, before Thor-Delta’s components were variously burnt on reentry or discarded in space. 2,3 An experiment across multiple terrains and forms of transmission, the construction and launch of Telstar 1 involved a host of characters: the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National Post, Telegraph, and Telecom Office. 

At 88cm diameter and weighing only 77 kilograms—a ‘payload’ determined by its desired orbit and the type of rocket used to deliver it into space — this modest satellite was the first privately funded space mission, bursting forth a world of extra terrestrial imperialist and capitalist venture through the ambition to relay the first live transatlantic television signal. Today, NASA’s nostalgic descriptions of the transmissions read like a weird fever dream, where unexpected characters and scenes are juxtaposed erratically and with seemingly little interaction between them: ‘The first images, those of President John F. Kennedy [JFK] and of singer Yves Montand from France, along with clips of sporting events, images of the American flag waving in the breeze and a still image of Mount Rushmore, were precursors of the global communications that today are mostly taken for granted.’ 4 

The anarchic open-access archive YouTube, is replete with snippets of these broadcasts for those who are both willing to skip the adverts, and gifted with enough concentration to swerve the side-bar of distraction. In one, a bombastic introductory voice-over by Ed Herlihy, an American ‘newsreel narrator’ for Universal-International, overshadows the somewhat lacklustre speech by JFK which follows. In an authoritative tone, Herlihy prepares viewers for the marvel they are to witness: ‘History is about to be made in the science of communication among men. Technicians in Europe prepare to receive a signal from the orbiting Telstar satellite that opens this new era. This is the first formal exchange of an official transmission, a beaming of the presidential press conference to the continent where most of Europe can witness democracy at work...’ In the vision that unfolds, ‘democracy at work’ 5 takes the form of a windowless room in which a white male president stands on a podium, with three other white men seated alongside him, in front of an audience almost entirely comprising other white men.

While the broadcasts veer into strange and seemingly innocuous territory—live footage of a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Ontario, a boy messily eating a Belgian waffle at the World’s Fair in Seattle, gentle traffic on an expressway near Detroit—the political significance of this event within extant planetary geo-political tensions weighs heavy, as is the potential for political point-scoring to be relayed in real time. Compèring the viewer through these hallucinatory scenes, the American CBS TV news anchor Walter Cronkite illustrates this condition in his characterisation of the significance of the moment: ‘The plain facts of electronic life are that Washington and the Kremlin are now no farther apart than the speed of light, at least technically. And what goes on in the United Nations building in New York can be seen in Belgrade and in Paris and in Bonn…’
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1   Shango is the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning. Extract from: A  Césaire. A Tempest. Translated by Richard Miller, Theatre Communications Group, 2002. https://fdocuments.in/document/cesaire-a-tempest.html

2    ‘Telstar Opened Era of Global Satellite Television’, Bob Granath, NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, Fla  https://www.nasa.gov/content/telstar-opened-era-of-global-satellite-television

3    HN Upthegrove, JB D’Albora, JR, AR Kolding & BA McLeod, ‘Launching of the Telstar Satellite’, Telstar 1, NASA SP-32, Vol 2, June 1963

4    ‘July 12, 1962: The Day Information Went Global’, NASA History, https://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/telstar.html

5     ‘First Commercial TV Broadcast of the Telestar[sic] Satellite’, NBC,YouTube, August 2016 

THANDI LOEWENSON︎︎︎ is an architectural designer/researcher, tutor at the Royal College of Art, and co-foundress of the architectural collective BREAK//LINE.