An event that went unnoticed the other day had more meaning than most of what passes for news. The Peoples Republic of China joined the International Telecommunications Satellite organization (Intelsat), becoming the 98th member of this remarkable worldwide system. Intelsat, governed by a board of member nations, operates on a profit-and-loss basis, which is why it is unusual that a Communist country should sign up.
We Americans are so given to fault-finding - particularly in the press - that great achidvements are often over-looked as nitpicking takes the headlines. One of these achievements is Intelsat, which in 13 years has linked every corner of the globe with five satellites in synchronous orbit at an altitude of 22,240 miles.
What seems hard to believe is an anniversary soon to come up. It was just 20 years ago that the Soviet Union sent its Sputnik into orbit around the globe. This caused consternation in the United States, where space had little place in either civilian or military planning. At the same time Eisenhower aides derided competition in an international basketball game.
In 20 years and with the expenditure of large sums of money, the United States has completely outdistanced the Soviet Union in every space department. One piece of evidence is Intelsat, which grew out of Comsat, organized as a private company shortly after America's first space triumphs.
There were those early on who saw the potential of a space operation that would not come under the heavy land of bureaucracy. One was the late Phillip L. Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. President John F. Kennedy named him to the board of incorporators. With the push of Graham and others who foresaw the future of space, Congress approved formation of a private company that would employ what scientists and engineers were achieving.
The latest communications satellite, IV-A, has a capacity of 6,000 voice circuits and two television channels. In late 1979, Intelsat V will be in operation with a capacity of 12,000 voice circuits and two TV channels.
Each member nation has, of course, ground stations to receive the relay from the sky. China, with three earth stations, has been using the Intelsat system since 1972 at the time of President Richard Nixon's visit. For a fee, use can be made of Intelsat without formal membership.
It is possible to employ satellite signals for use in communication within a country. Algeria is an example. With large areas of mountain and desert that would have meant costly microwave relays and cables, the Algerians have by-passed a whole era with Intelsat signals sent from point to point within the country.
At least 12 nations are nonsignatory users of Intelsat. One of them, interestingly enough, is the Soviet Union. The Soviets started their own international communications system. Today they have only Moscow and the East European satellites on their circuit, called Inter-Sputnik.
Intelsat is operated by two men working in a large room in the Comsat Building in Washington. They sit with their telephone switchboards facing one wall on which is a huge map of the world with the earth stations lighted in each country and the satellites and their antennae in the sky above. In a matter of seconds they can reach by phone any point on the map.
Intelsat has elected to send charges for Amercian use, with Comsat in effect as the wholesaler, through private communications companies. The charge, for television at any rate, has been sharply reduced. The first satellite that went up. Early Bird in 1965, provided the first means for international relay of television. The cost then of a two- to three-minute segment from, say, Tokyo or London was several thousand dollars. Today it is several hundred dollars.
One of the elements that makes Intelsat unique is its wholly nonpolitical nature. The voice relaved over the Indian or Pacific Ocean satellites may be in Japanese or Urdu or any language. It makes no difference, since this is a technical instrument that treats all sounds alike.
Comparison with the Pentagon is one measure of the success of a private civilian organization. Efforts by the Pentagon to establish its own international communications system fell far short after the expenditure of nearly $2 billion.
American creativity, American production, the American lead in science and engineering are so often lost sight of. The Bert Lance affair may titillate the emotions and spark the headlines, but surely it is dwarfed by the achievements of the postwar years.