NASA's First Data Relay Satellite Retires
NASA's first Tracking and Relay Data Satellite (TDRS-1) is deployed in space from the space shuttle Challenger in April 1983.
Credit: NASA

NASA's first data-relay satellite, which dutifully sent communications between NASA spacecraft and the ground for 27 years, is headed for the retirement home.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) 1 relayed telemetry data from launching rockets back to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the early 1990s. It later served a vital role relaying communications between the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and other important spacecraft with ground controllers.

TDRS-1 was launched into orbit during space shuttle Challenger's maiden voyage in April 1983.    

After five years of providing NASA with the ability to communicate with other spacecraft, the satellite was reassigned to an orbit that closed a dead zone over the Indian Ocean and connected the South Pole to the North Pole.

It continued to relay signals and voice commands between spacecraft in the NASA communications network, but took on the additional job of transmitting gigabytes of scientific data to university researchers on a daily basis.

Managing incoming data from eight other satellites, TDSR-1 was instrumental in the efforts of the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, the space shuttle and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has run several Antarctica-based projects. 

"TDRS-1 paved the way for this incredible space communications system," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate. "The remaining TDRS satellites, and the new satellites that will be online within three years, will carry on these critical capabilities for many NASA missions, including science and human spaceflight."

In the early 1990s, TDSR-1 was the first satellite to support launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. In 1999, it assisted in a medical emergency affecting the NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station's lone physician. Afflicted with breast cancer, Dr. Jerri Nielsen successfully performed a self-biopsy and administered chemotherapy using the satellite's high speed internet connectivity as a medium for telemedicine conferences.

The satellite made possible the first Internet connection and live webcast from the North Pole, and the world's first globally broadcasted television event at the South Pole Station (a new year's celebration for 2000).

South Pole research programs supported by TSDR-1 include the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, and the South Pole Radio Telescope

NASA shut down the satellite on June 27 after a two-week process of removing its fuel and stabilizing its orbit 22,500 miles above Earth.

By 2013, two more satellites will be added to the nation's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, according to a statement by NASA.