Aug 23

Can You Hear Me Now?

Friday, August 23, 2019 12:01 AM


Satellite based communication, from satellite phone service to G.P.S., has become essential to everyday life, however fifty years ago, it was almost impossible to imagine. That changed on 23 August 1963, when President John F. Kennedy made the first call relayed by satellite between two heads of state. President Kennedy called Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on board the USNS Kingsport (T-AG-164), a converted Victory Class Military Sea Lift Command ship.

Transcript of President Kennedy’s conversation with Prime Minister Balewa (JFK Library)

Beginning in January of 1962 and completed in December, “The Kingsport was converted to a communication terminal by the Navy Bureau of Ships for use by the U.S. Army Satellite Communications Agency of the Defense Satellite Communications Program.” The conversion drastically changed the ship’s appearance, and the new 53 foot radome instantly differentiated Kingsport from any other Sea Lift Command Ship. 

Following completion of all phases of its conversion, the Kingsport was re-commissioned on 8 December 1962. External features of the Kingsport included the helicopter platform and a 53-foot air-inflated radome to house antennas for ship-to-shore communications and a multi-element antenna for satellite command.

USNS Kingsport (T-AG-164) at sea following its conversion
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)


After it was returned to commission, USNS Kingsport had an extensive communications suite including additional antennas as seen from the bow.
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)


Underneath the 53-foot inflated radome, the ship supported the massive antennas needed to receive and process information relayed from Syncom II
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)


In addition to the radome, a helicopter landing pad was added during the extensive refit, but a hangar was not added.
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Communication over intercontinental distances through the use of satellites was successfully demonstrated during NASA’s first five years. Syncom, in orbit 22,300 miles up, established the first communications via satellite between the United States and Africa.

The synchronous communications satellite appears almost stationary in relation to the Earth.
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)


Stripes of inorganic white paint mark a thermal barrier shield of Syncom, the synchronous communications satellite built by Hughes Aircraft Company, 1963
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)


Cutaway view of the Syncom II communications satellite shows the placement of the Sonotone hermetically sealed nickel-cadmium battery cells.
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

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