On a July day in 1962, a television camera captured images of a flag flapping outside the 16-story fabric dome housing a large antenna at the Andover Earth Station in rural Oxford County.

That image was instantly beamed into space, bouncing off the newly launched Telstar I satellite and then down to other antennas in France and England.

It marked the first trans-Atlantic television signal, a few seconds of time in Western Maine that could be seen simultaneously overseas, the beginning of a telecommunications revolution.

Seven summers later, the Andover Earth Station played a small but important role in something even more historic: the moon landing that occurred 50 years ago on July 20, 1969.

As The Washington Post noted at the time, when NASA’s Mission Control in Houston needed to transmit information to Apollo 11, it sent out an electronic command to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Less than 2 seconds later, that message was sent along to the array in Andover to be beamed across the Atlantic to another control center in Madrid, Spain, and on to the spacecraft circling the moon.

To listeners, it was just beeps and buzzing, but those data funneled through the giant antenna in Western Maine helped make the moon adventure a reality.

The antenna at the Andover Earth Station was used to transmit images and data into space during the 1960s. Courtesy of NASA

Though remnants of the Andover station remain in use on a secluded spot off Roxbury Notch Road, the dome was dismantled in 1985, no longer useful because far more sophisticated equipment took up its role in thousands of locations across the globe.

The receiving and transmitting station in Andover, a former logging town, was built by AT&T to work with the Telstar satellite developed by Bell Laboratories.

They chose the site, according to the Maine Memory Network operated by the Maine Historical Society, because it was sort of in a bowl surrounded by mountains that would minimize interference. That it was closer to Europe than most everywhere else in the United States also played a role.

Inside the inflatable fabric bubble, the company erected a horn-shaped antenna that weighed 340 tons and rested on tracks that allowed the operator to aim it precisely.

Getting it all to work right wasn’t a given.

One of the engineers, Eugene O’Neill, told the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers History Center in a 2001 oral history that the huge ground antenna housed in the dome had “an extremely narrow beam” that had to hit the moving target of the Telstar satellite far above the Earth “at a fairly good pace.”

“It was a little bit like a skeet shoot,” he said, adding that it was “a belt and suspender job” to make it happen as planned.

Walter Brown, a retired scientist from Bell Labs, told The Associated Press in 2002 that he was among those at Andover when the first overseas transmission attempt occurred July 11.

An image from the original trans-Atlantic broadcast from Andover to overseas antennas via Telstar I.

He said everyone was “watching, waiting, holding our breath, hoping — yes, hoping — that Telstar would be a success.”

When the satellite came over the horizon, the command came to turn on the signal, Brown said.

Then he heard a whoop and people calling out that it worked.

“We had done it,” Brown said.

The site, often called a radome at the time, quickly captured the state’s imagination.

In 1962, nearly every phone book in Maine carried a picture of the radome on its cover — at the time, AT&T had a virtual monopoly on phone service — and a few years later, Bethel named its new high school Telstar.

Today, though, the place is mostly forgotten.

But without Andover’s Earth Station, Neil Armstrong might never have made that “giant leap for mankind.”


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