We were waiting for 3 p.m. That’s when Group W would beam the first Discovery Channel signal to the Westar V satellite positioned 22,236 miles above the equator. At that altitude, the $250 million satellite was in geostationary orbit, and its orbital speed exactly matched the Earth’s rotation. Since the satellite appeared to be “fixed” in the sky, cable-television operators across the country could receive the retransmitted television signals from the satellite through their own fixed dishes, just like the one mounted on our roof.
In Wireless World in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke first suggested that if just three satellites could be placed in a geostationary orbit, then the planet would be blanketed with retransmitted signals from space — and would usher in a world of instantaneous global communications.
However, in 1945 no rocket could lift a satellite even into low Earth orbit. In America, that feat would have to wait until Jan. 31, 1958, when the powerful Jupiter C rocket lifted the nation’s first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit. In 1975, Satcom I transmitted the television feed of Home Box Office, an event that marked the birth of cable-satellite programming. Now, a decade later, we were taking our place in the sky aboard Westar V.
At precisely 3 p.m. the crisp signal with the animated Discovery Channel logo burst onto our television and the room erupted in cheers. We were transfixed.
It had been a team effort, and now the team wanted to stay in that room and share our success. Hundreds of hours of programming — from the BBC, from TVOntario and from other suppliers around the world — had been acquired by Suzanne Hayes. It was enough to fill our schedule for months, if not years.
But we had not been able to confirm if any operators were launching our service simultaneously with the first satellite transmission — so there was the possibility that we were the only people in America watching. We settled down like a big family to watch the first show, “Iceberg Alley,” a documentary about the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.