Santiago Astrain; Made 'Science Fiction Science Fact'

Santiago Astrain, 89, was the first chief of Intelsat.
Santiago Astrain, 89, was the first chief of Intelsat. (Family Photo)
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Friday, July 4, 2008

Santiago Astrain, 89, the first director general of Intelsat and a pioneer in the development of geostationary communications satellites, died of complications from lymphoma June 4 at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, where he lived.

Mr. Astrain, a native of San Fernando, Chile, was the first chief executive of Entel-Chile, which built the first Earth station for satellite communications in Latin America.

At a 1969 Washington conference of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, he proposed the eventual structure for Intelsat, which would allow participating entities, regardless of size, to have a forum for their opinions.

He then led a working group to draft an agreement between members and the services Intelsat would provide, and it was accepted in 1971 by the full membership.

Mr. Astrain was working at the World Bank as chief of the power section for Latin America and the Caribbean when Intelsat's board appointed him its first secretary general. In 1976, the board selected him over heavy international competition to be the first director general. He served until 1983.

He graduated from the University of Chile in Santiago in 1943 with a degree in civil and electrical engineering. While in school, he worked as an engineer for the country's national electric power company.

Mr. Astrain taught for 25 years at the University of Chile, where he was professor of electrical theory, electrical engineering and electrical systems.

Starting in 1960, Mr. Astrain led the reorganization of the Chilean power company's 8,000 employees. In 1968, he was the Chilean government's representative to the United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

In 2001, he was awarded the first Arthur C. Clarke Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. John McLucas, chairman of the foundation in the United States, said: "He was instrumental in taking Sir Arthur's 1945 vision of geostationary satellites and making the reality that now connects the people and countries of the world. In a very real sense, Astrain made Clarke's science fiction science fact."

Mr. Astrain was "a man of great intelligence and drive, who combined the mind and skills of an engineer with the tact and finesse of a diplomat and the insights of a mediator," said his friend Fernando van Reigersberg.

"In Chile, he became known as a consummate technocrat, a man of great knowledge but also able to be largely apolitical," he said. "Consequently, his services were sought and respected by leaders on all political sides."

Fluent in Spanish, English and French and a student of German, he had traveled extensively around the world. When he retired, he decided to see the United States by automobile and drove throughout the country with his wife.

His wife of 52 years, Caridad Astrain, died in 1995.

Survivors include a daughter, Maria Eugenia Covarrubias of Bethesda, and two grandchildren.

-- Patricia Sullivan

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