A Brief History

by Dr. T.S. Kelso
2021 Jun 13


As I prepare to retire on 2021 July 1, after almost 32 years in the US Air Force and another 17.5 years working for AGI and COMSPOC, I am looking forward to being able to focus my attention on improving CelesTrak in ways that were never really possible while working on it during my time off in the evenings, on weekends, and even many vacations.

Since I often get questions about how CelesTrak came to be and how it has developed over the years, I thought it was about time that I put together some of that history. As such, I'm going to start with how the name CelesTrak came to be and how the brand was established.

Brand History

Back when the BBS (Bulletin Board System) was first set up in 1985, the focus was on satellites and astronomy. Since these were all things in the heavens, the site was originally known as the Celestial BBS (or RCP/M, which meant Remote CP/M, the operating system).

Because even GIFs didn't exist then (those were created in 1987), I ended up programming the logo in ~1986 using PostScript (yes, it is actually a programming language), since there was no graphics software, because most computers only supported rudimentary graphics. I could then send it to a laser printer and get output.

Every individual element had to be programmed—including creating the individual triangles making up the star. A blank triangle was created and then flipped and made dark and then that piece was rotated to make the star. Those items had to be layered to get the right effect. I can't seem to find the original .ps file, but here is a scan of the result:

Celestial BBS

I printed the design on heavy stock paper and folded it in half so I could stand it on top of my computer.

In 1994, I started writing for Satellite Times and the publisher, Grove Enterprises, graciously gave me space on their web site to set up the Celestial WWW. When I did, I created a GIF version of the old logo, with the URL:

Celestial WWW

The site was later described in one of my Satellite Times columns.

When Satellite Times was about to cease publication in 1998, I was advised to find my own hosting, which I did on 1998 February 27. But celestial.com was already taken by then (by the tea company), so I just made up CelesTrak as a combination of Celestial and Tracking.

The site went online on 1998 March 5. If you search the Internet Archive Wayback Machine for celestrak.com, you can see they first captured the home page on 1998 December 5:


CelesTrak on the Internet Wayback Machine

By then, we already had over 300,000 visitors.

Six years later, I started working for AGI on 2004 January 1, but continued to host CelesTrak on my own. To highlight how the new Center for Space Standards & Innovation (CSSI) was building upon the legacy of what I had been doing on CelesTrak, the CSSI logo was eventually added and then updated every 5 years:

CelesTrak-CSSI CelesTrak-CSSI 20 CelesTrak-CSSI 25 CelesTrak-CSSI 30

In 2019, I asked AGI's graphics team for help updating the design, as I was updating the overall design of the web site. I explained that I wanted to retain the basic elements of the original design—so that long-time users would still recognize it—but we needed several iterations to achieve that goal:

Redesign 1

Redesign 2

Redesign 3

After explaining that the 'swoosh' was supposed to look like an orbit in the shape of a C, we finally had today's logo:

Celestial BBS

The ultimate result nicely updates the original theme (including ties back to all the difficulties of actually creating it) in a way that a long-time user still immediately recognizes it. The colors are color-matched off the background, which was the original color of the pages on the Grove web site (and I hate glaring white web pages). The goal was to bridge old and new and mark a new beginning for moving into the future with our new visualization features. —TS