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History of the Delta Launch Vehicle

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To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles

"A valuable contribution to the field of aerospace literature," this book includes an extensive overview of Delta history and development along with chapters on Atlas, Titan, Scout, Space Shuttle, and much more.

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This article, in modified form, was originally written for inclusion in To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles. Due to space limitations and its tangential relation to the main subject of Delta, it was edited out in the revision process.

Delta, Satcom, and the Cable Boom

The Delta 3914 model, designed in joint management sessions between RCA, NASA and McDonnell Douglas, would not become the standard Delta until 1979. However its first flight, that of RCA Global Communications' Satcom 1 on 13 December 1975, would make telecommunications history. Satcom 1, with some pinch-hitting by Westar 1, spurred the cable television industry to unprecedented heights with the help of a company known as Home Box Office (HBO).

HBO, started in November 1972 and based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, was a pay television service airing commercial-free unedited movies, pay-per-view boxing matches, and some original programming, and was available to local cable television users on a subscription basis. HBO was distributed to these cable systems via a network of microwave relay towers throughout the northeastern United States, a network that was difficult and expensive to maintain, especially in winter. Distribution was limited because a cable system could only receive the signal if it was along the microwave route. A year after its debut HBO had a mere 8,000 subscribers and was struggling to survive. The cable industry as a whole was not in much better shape, as it seemed destined to serve only rural towns and hilly areas, where distance from the transmitters, or terrain, meant weak antenna reception. The largest television markets, in and around major U.S. cities, were also the places where conventional broadcast signals are strongest and most plentiful. With a copper shortage to compound the problem, cable companies were unable to compete and in the mid-1970s most were deeply in debt.

Domestic satellite communications turned the tables. When RCA won permission from the FCC to launch Satcom in 1974, Sid Topol, president of cable equipment manufacturer Scientific-Atlanta, met with RCA, HBO, and a group of cable operators. The idea Topol presented would benefit everyone: use RCA's satellite to distribute HBO programming, eliminating the complex of microwave stations.* Scientific-Atlanta could build the ground stations, and the cable systems would gain subscribers. RCA and HBO agreed. A cable owner in Vero Beach, Florida, saw the potential and offered his 10,000-customer system as a test bed.

Then HBO got lucky by landing a contract, at very little expense, to televise The Thrilla from Manila, the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines. With only a day or two to spare, a receiving dish was installed at the Vero Beach cable headend. On 30 September 1975, a television signal took a roundabout path from Manila to Florida, first by uplinking through an Intelsat to California, then by landlines and microwave relays to Valley Forge via New York City, and finally uplinking once again through Westar 1 to reach Florida.

Westar was the only available domestic satellite system until RCA Satcom 1 was launched aboard Delta 118 on 13 December 1975. HBO transmitted on Westar until Satcom 1 entered commercial service in February 1976. The Ali-Frazier broadcast was of high quality and was a raging success, and soon receiver dishes were popping up at cable system headends throughout the country. Cable television finally had the unique service it needed to make inroads into metropolitan and suburban markets, and by the end of 1977, HBO had more than 1.6 million subscribers.


Version 1.0, last update 20 November 2002.

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History of the Delta Launch Vehicle by Kevin S. Forsyth