Someone linked the song "Telstar" on that social media Facebook thing and, wow, what a memory.
Showing the gray hair here: Telstar -- both the song and the satellite -- was launched 50 years ago. Telstar, the satellite, is still up there. The song is a moldy oldie.
It is easy, now, to be blase about these things. A farmer in Box Elder County once told me "We're living the dreams of our pioneer ancestors," a statement calculated to make one feel silly about moaning when cell phone reception is bad.
Today's global communications are the dream Telstar foretold.
How to describe what Telstar was like?
I was 13. John F. Kennedy was president, and his New Frontier was promising a world of great change. Marvels were popping up everywhere.
Telstar allowed you to talk by telephone to someone on the other side of the continent, or even Europe, instantly, via satellite. Even better: You could see live TV from Europe!
Today I can instant message with my Facebook friends in England, Algeria and India, simultaneously. But in 1962, nobody could do that. Transatlantic cables allowed phone calls, but they cost a mint and, anyway, satellites were new, amazing, science fiction come to life.
I have no clue how science fiction writers survive today. We know too much about what conditions on other planets are really like. Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" would just draw laughs and the predictions of Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968 are a tad behind schedule.
Although as I understand these things, 2001's lone visual joke, the guy pondering a very long list of instructions for using a zero-gravity toilet, was pretty accurate.
Telstar I (the name has been used many times since) was not the first communications satellite. The U.S. sent one up earlier that broadcast a short speech by President Eisenhower, but it couldn't relay anything.
Anyone else remember Echo?
The evil Ruskies kicked our collective national butt in 1957 with Sputnik, a satellite that beeped. The U.S. struck back for global satellite domination in 1960 with a big balloon.
No, seriously. Echo I, a giant mylar balloon, was launched and inflated. Radio signals bounced off it so someone in New York could talk by phone to someone in Los Angeles. At Scout camp near Mirror Lake, we used a flashlight to try to shoot it down as it soared overhead.
I had the pleasure of talking to some scientists who worked on Echo's development while I was covering the Genesis satellite landing at Camp Williams in 2004. They were dismissive: It was a big bag of air, it deflated in a couple of weeks and so on.
Still, I felt like a guy who'd just met the Beatles. These guys were pioneers! Echo was cool! Nobody had ever done that before!
And then came Telstar.
The song by the Tornados, a British group, has definite echoes of the "Star Trek" TV show theme for good reason. Space really was the final frontier. Kids brought up on Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were finally seeing the future happen. Personal rocket packs were right around the corner.
Who cared about talking to Europe instantly? All of us.
We were silly enough to think that wars started because people didn't understand each other. To understand people, you need to talk to them. President Kennedy said, with a straight face, that satellite communications would usher in a world of peace.
Yeah. Silly dreamer.
Then again, I do have friends in Algeria and India. We're getting along fine.
Maybe there's something to it.