Palapa A1, the first Indonesian satellite

Palapa A1, the first Indonesian satellite, was launched on July 8, 1976. The first communications satellite to be owned by a developing nation, a twelve million Indonesian spacecraft called Palapa A1, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The purpose of the system was to unify the telecommunications of the nation. Many years of operation have shown that satellite technology is the best solution for improving telecommunications in Indonesia.

Indonesia was the fourth nation, after the Soviet Union, Canada and the United States of America, to establish its own domestic communications satellite system. The satellite was three metres and forty centimetres high (including antenna) and almost two metres in diameter. The shaped-beam antenna was a solar transparent one and a half metres parabolic dish. Launch weight of the satellite was five hundred and seventy-three kilograms; in-orbit weight was almost three hundred kilograms.

Palapa A1, the first Indonesian satellite

Palapa was a series of communication satellites (a communications satellite is an artificial satellite that relays and amplifies radio telecommunications signals via a transponder; it creates a communication channel between a source transmitter and a receiver at different locations on Earth. Communications satellites are used for television, telephone, radio, internet, and military applications) owned by Indosat, an Indonesian telecommunication company. Perumtel, the Indonesian telecommunications agency, began service via the Palapa A1 satellite on August 17, 1976, for the 31st anniversary of Indonesian independence.

The name Palapa was bestowed by then Indonesian President Suharto, after the Palapa oath sworn in 1334 by Gajah Mada, who was, according to Javanese old manuscripts, poems and mythology, a powerful military leader and Mahapatih or (equal to) Prime Minister of the Indianized Hindu empire of Majapahit, credited with bringing the empire to its peak of glory. The contracts concerning the construction of the domestic satellite system were signed on February 15, 1975, with three American companies.

All the satellites were launched by the United States of America, starting with Palapa A1 in July 1976, at which time Indonesia became the first developing country to operate its own domestic satellite system. Indonesia has invested one hundred and eighty million dollars, including more than one hundred and thirty million dollars spent in the United States of America, in its domestic communications satellite system. The spacecraft was to link forty Earth stations in the Indonesian archipelago at points up to five thousand kilometres apart.

The Palapa A1 satellite, built by Boeing Satellite Systems, Inc., was a 12-transponder satellite with an average capacity of six thousand voice circuits or twelve simultaneous colour television channels or any combination of the two. Contract lifetime of the satellite in orbit was seven years. To ensure the launching of the satellite, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in March 1975 between the Indonesian government and NASA. The memorandum was strengthened by the exchange of diplomatic notes.

The Palapa A1 satellite program began in February 1975 when the Indonesian government awarded two separate contracts to Boeing for the construction of two satellites, a master control station for the entire system, and nine Earth stations. Completion of the Earth stations and development, construction, and launch of the first satellite took place in seventeen months, one of the fastest production schedules ever undertaken by Boeing management and engineers.

Other firms built thirty Earth stations to complete the group segment of the system, which was controlled and operated by Perumtel, the government-owned telecommunications company. Palapa A1’s specially designed antenna concentrated the satellites signal power on all Indonesian islands, including the main isles of Sumatra, Java, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Irian Jaya, as well as the surrounding southeast Asia area including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

The International Telecommunications Union regulation states, among other things, that no new telecommunications system can begin operations until it has been coordinated with both Radio regulations and the International Frequencies Registration Board (IFRB). It also need to be entered into the Master Register. As a member of INTELSAT, Indonesia needed to coordinate its planned system with that of INTELSAT in order to operate its own satellite system.

Only twenty-six minutes into the launching, the Palapa A1 satellite travelled at a speed of more than thirty-five thousand kilometres per hour, and entered its elliptical transfer at an apogee of thirty-five thousand kilometres and perigee of two hundred and thirty one kilometres. When the satellite entered its orbit slot, the apogee engine was fired from the main control at Cibinong, Indonesia on July 12, 1976; the launching procedure was successful.

Virtually all developing countries have shared and participated in communications satellite activities. This technology is available to developing countries primarily because of the diffusive nature of the technology. Stationed in the GSO, communication satellites with global beams ignore the national borders, ideologies, religions, races, and levels of economic development of the country they serve. In addition, communications satellites are available for developing countries because of the existence of international, regional, and national systems that provide facilities to them.

Both internal and external factors and actors have contributed to developing countries becoming involved in communications satellite activities. External factors and actors were found to be dominant in the applications of communications satellites for international communications. On the other hand, internal factors and actors were found to be determinant in acquiring communications satellites for domestic purposes. Palapa A1, for example, was the result of strong political commitment by the Indonesian government. The system has been used primarily for national unification programs.

In Indonesia, the basic hindrances to optimal usage of the satellite capacities for community development programming have been mainly the limited availability of programming facilities and personnel, and the lack of cooperation among the parties involved. Unlike the situation in the United States of America, where satellites came into being after other supporting means had been well established (studies, well-trained personnel, sophisticated equipment…). Indonesia obtained its satellite before other supporting systems were available. Therefore, under-utilisation of the system, especially in the early stages, couldn’t be avoided.

Despite the limitations above, Palapa A1 was found to be very useful in integrating the country. It has effectively “united” the Indonesians; if the United States of America was truly united with the invention of railways and the telegraph, Indonesia is hopeful that its unification will come as a result of the extensive use of aeroplanes, ships, and satellite communications.