In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of NASA Tech Briefs, our features in 2006 highlight a different technology category each month, tracing the past 30 years of the technology, and continuing with a glimpse into the future of where the technology is headed. Along the way, we include insights from industry leaders on the past, present, and future of each technology. This month, we take a look at the past 30 years of Communications Technology.

Think back to how we communicated 30 years ago. Chances are, you used a telephone — one with a cord attached to it and plugged into the wall — and you wrote letters. Today, we have cell phones, pagers, wireless mobile devices, and personal computers or laptops — all with access to the Internet. Today, we communicate via e-mail, instant messaging, and online chat rooms. We communicate in ways that were not even imaginable 30 years ago, and now we can’t imagine how we ever lived without these technologies.

Just over 30 years ago, Dr. Martin Cooper, a former general manager at Motorola, invented the first portable telephone handset, and became the first person to make a call on a portable cell phone in 1973. Dr. Cooper wanted everyone to be able to carry their telephones with them, and to be able to communicate with each other from anywhere. The first Motorola cell phone weighed 2.5 pounds, had talk time of 35 minutes, contained 30 circuit boards, and cost about $3,500.

A Naval corpsman demonstrates the Virtual Reality (VR) parachute trainer, while a colleague controls the program from a computer console. Students wear the VR glasses while suspended in a parachute harness, and then learn to control their movements through a series of computer-simulated scenarios. The VR trainer also teaches aircrew personnel how to handle a parachute in different weather conditions and during possible malfunctions. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Chris Desmond.)

Today, it is deemed unusual not to have a cell phone, and Dr. Cooper’s vision of everyone being able to communicate from anywhere, anytime, is now a reality.

As computer technology evolved and microcircuits became more commonplace, the development of smaller personal communications devices began. Satellites and mobile services emerged, enabling people to stay connected wherever they went.

In 1998, a new standard was introduced that also enabled communications devices to stay connected to each other. Bluetooth is a radio standard and communications protocol for short-range (100 meters or less) wireless communications. Designed for low power consumption, it’s based on low-cost transceiver microchips in each device rather than on infrared technology, which means that the devices do not need to be in line of sight with each other. The technology uses a globally unlicensed short-range radio frequency, enabling devices to communicate when in range with each other, regardless of where the user is in the world.

Another major communications technology developed in the past 30 years is the Internet. A Department of Defense study in the late 1960s looking at the feasibility of developing a computer network resulted in the ARPANET network, the predecessor of the Internet. By the 1980s, the technologies we know as the basis of the Internet had already begun to spread across the world. Personal computers were becoming more ubiquitous, and new technologies were emerging that allowed all of these computers to be networked together. The Internet enabled communication not only between individuals and the information they sought, but among groups of people with common interests.

Satellite Communications

In the early 1960s, the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT) provided telephone circuits for the NASA Communications Network (NASCOM). By the end of the decade, the INTELSAT III series reached global coverage, just days before a half billion people watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

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