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Space suit at Canberra Deep Space Station

To the moon and back – via Canberra

This article first appeared in HerCanberra, republished here with a few more bits and pieces.

It’s been 50 years since the immortal words ‘one small step’ were uttered by Neil Armstrong as his feet, the first ever feet, touched the surface of the Moon on 21 July 1969 AEST. Even if you weren’t around at the time, it’s a fair bet you’ve seen the grainy black and white images of those first steps and heard those crackling words many times over. It’s a standout moment of history and a triumph of human achievement.

We all know it was the American NASA program who won the ultimate space-race prize when they planted that red, white and blue flag up there on the Sea of Tranquillity. But did you know the images of that lauded ‘leap for mankind’, watched by nearly 600 million viewers around the world, a record at the time, were actually broadcast from Australia?

More precisely from just outside Canberra, from the now retired Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station.

For more than 60 years, Australia has played a vital role in space tracking owing to its geographic location and its technical know-how, but never was it more important than on that day. When Apollo 11 took off on its Moon mission, the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station and its 26-metre diameter tracking dish, purpose built for the Apollo mission, was part of an international network supporting NASA.  It was one of three major tracking stations spaced evenly around the globe capable of communicating with Apollo spacecraft on or near the Moon, making it possible to be in contact with the spacecraft at all times. The primary site was in Goldstone in California USA and the third was in Madrid in Spain.

Honeysuckle was closely supported in the ACT by its ‘wing’ facility, Tidbinbilla Tracking Station (now called the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex) and by the CSIRO’s 64-metre satellite dish at Parkes in New South Wales. It was originally planned that the Tidbinbilla Station would receive the signals of the moon landing, but a fire broke out there just days before the mission. Even though the damage was repaired within 12 hours, NASA was nervous so they swapped to Honeysuckle Creek as the main receiver and Tidbinbilla was relegated to back up.

The Parkes dish, built initially for radio astronomy, too was originally planned as a backup receiver for the Apollo mission but a change in the schedule two months out meant the Moonwalk would start when the Moon would be high overhead at Parkes. It would therefore in the best placed position around the world of the three major dishes to receive. Parkes was upgraded from backup to prime receiving station for the TV broadcast.

Timings changed even on the day and Neil Armstrong was keen to get out and about once they’d landed on the Moon, rather than rest for several hours as planned. But as it turned out those space suits take some hours to get into, and by the time the astronauts were ready to begin their Moon walk, the Moon had set at Goldstone and was just rising at Parkes, but not yet high enough to be in line with the main transmitter.

The satellite dish was tipped right over in readiness when it was suddenly hit by two powerful gusts of wind, experiencing wind force up to ten times greater than was considered safe. The wind alarm rang out in the control room and the tower shuddered and swayed. Just as the Moon rose into Parkes’ view, luckily the wind reduced. It was just then Buzz Aldrin flipped the switch on the TV camera and the broadcast began.

At this time, Goldstone, Honeysuckle and Parkes were all receiving signals. The Australian signals were sent to Sydney where a NASA officer chose the best between them and sent them to Houston. A controller there chose the best signals between those and the ones coming from Goldstone (which actually came in upside down because a switch wasn’t changed) and transmitted those to the rest of the world.

For almost the first nine minutes of the broadcast, NASA switched between signals from Goldstone and those from Honeysuckle Creek. It was Honeysuckle that captured the first footstep on the Moon. After that, the signals from Parkes’ main detector came through which were so good NASA stayed with them for the duration of the two-and-a-half-hour broadcast. The whole time, the wind remained high and gusts of wind up to 110km an hour threatened to rip the dish off its hinges. Almost the whole time the telescope operated outside its safety limits but a decision was made to keep going and the pictures were successfully delivered to the rest of the world, or at least the one fifth of it that watched the broadcast live.

The drama of the storm was made famous by the great Australian movie The Dish. It’s just that they lost a bit of historical accuracy in the creative making of the film and forgot to mention Honeysuckle Creeks’ role. Ooops.

For years after, there were arguments about where those initial images came from. Finally in 1993 a written agreement acknowledged they were in fact from the dish at Honeysuckle, and that dish, now happily retired, still lives here in Canberra.

If you want to relive the excitement of that great moment in history, and our role in it, Canberra is putting on a whole range of activities and exhibitions to get your Moon fix. You can even attend discussions and events and hear from some of the controllers and technicians who were there at the time and who helped bring those pictures to the world. They were a part of the huge world wide team of around 400,000 people who helped put man on the moon.

Discover more

If you want to read more, chase down the book written by one of those present on the day, Andrew Tink: Honeysuckle Creek: The Story of Tom Reid, a Little Dish and Neil Armstrong’s First Step.

The book is part history and part biography and ‘gives a gripping account of the role of its director Tom Reid and his colleagues in transmitting some of the most-watched images in human history as Neil Armstrong took his first step.’

If you live in Canberra, join in the moon fever and take your pick from these events:

  • Head out to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, now part of the NASA Deep Space Network, to see the original satellite antenna and learn more about Australia’s role in the Moon landing and the role we still play in space exploration. The exhibition includes space craft models, memorabilia, a space suit, space food, and a piece of actual Moon rock billions of years old. Free entry, open 7 days. There’s a special open day on 21 July re-broadcasting the entire moon transmission timed to  be ‘live’ as it happened 50 years ago with the first step at 12.56pm.
  • The National Film and Sound Archives is presenting a series of Moon movies and documentaries exploring the impact of the Moon landing, including The Dish and First Man. Details and bookings on the NFSA website, 19 – 20 July, from $10
  • Sit back in Questacon’s new Moon gallery to gaze at the glowing details of a 7-metre scaled model of the Moon. The NASA imagery of the Moon’s surface lets you discover over 30,000 craters and where the Apollo missions landed.
  • Buy a set of commemorative coins from the Australian Mint, featuring two coins showing the lunar landing site and the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking station.
  • Visit the Promised the Moon art exhibition where 14 artists reflect on the first Moon landing and the Canberra’s role in it, ANU School of Design, 20 June to 26 July, attend a panel discussion or join the exhibition’s curator in conversation.
  • Learn about the power of science and mathematics through the Apollo program at Questacon’s Apollo 11-50th Anniversary Exhibition, 1 July to 30 November.
  • Visit the Tracking Apollo: 50 years since the Moon landing exhibition at the National Museum to see equipment from the Honeysuckle Creek station along with some commemorative memorabilia and a large console from the Orroral Valley tracking station. 1 July to 18 August.
  • The museum is also hosting a ticketed panel session on 19 July discussing how the tracking station on the outskirts of Canberra came to be involved in the mission and the challenges faced. The panel includes trackers and technicians from Honeysuckle Creek fifty years ago.
  • Join one of the Moon activities during the Moon-themed National Science Week from 10-18 August.
  • You can still visit the Honeysuckle Creek site and even camp out overnight even though the site closed in 1981 and the buildings and satellites have been removed,

Those outside Canberra can join in lots of events around the country as well.

Happy moon day!

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