The satellite pioneer who got the world talking
Harold Rosen 1926–2017
In 1957, Harold Rosen watched in awe as the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth, streaked across the night sky above Los Angeles. Sputnik could only broadcast beeps back to Earth, but the young engineer imagined a future in which such technology relayed phone calls and video images around the globe. It was a fanciful notion in an era when undersea telephone cables and radio towers offered limited connectivity, leaving swaths of the world totally isolated. But by 1963, Rosen and his colleagues at Hughes Aircraft had developed Syncom, the world’s first geosynchronous communication satellite—a lightweight, solar-powered telephone switching station that traveled in perfect sync with Earth’s rotation. Today, some 600 geostationary signals handle all kinds of communications data, including international TV signals and internet and cellphone connections. “It was more than the sky being the limit,” Rosen said of his innovation, “because in space, there is no limit.”
Born in New Orleans, Rosen showed an early interest in communications, building “his own radio as a project for the high school ham radio club,” said the New Orleans Times-Picayune. At 15, he enrolled in Tulane University to study electrical engineering, and after a stint in the Navy during World War II won a place at two top graduate schools—Harvard and Caltech. Life magazine “came out with a big story on beach parties in Southern California,” Rosen recalled. “I decided I’d prefer that to the cold New England winter.” He would go on to work on anti-aircraft guided missiles for Raytheon, before moving to Hughes in 1956. Many experts doubted that his idea for a geosynchronous satellite would work, said the Los Angeles Times. But in August 1963, Syncom launched with a splash—“a two-minute telephone call placed by President John F. Kennedy to Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.”
Rosen “oversaw the development of more than 150 communications satellites at Hughes and later at Boeing,” said The New York Times. After retiring in 1993, he and his brother “founded Rosen Motors, where they developed and manufactured a hybrid-electric power train.” He never lost his youthful sense of wonder. Watching satellite TV at home in 2003, a grinning Rosen told an interviewer, “I get hundreds of channels for under a dollar,” knowing full well he helped make it all possible.