On 21 July 2019, it will be 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon. It was the first time humans set foot on another world. The Apollo Moon program was an enormous feat of technological ingenuity. Many nations, including Australia, contributed to its success.
Australia has a long history of providing space tracking support to the United States, starting in 1957 before NASA. By 1969, Australia hosted the greatest number NASA tracking stations outside the US, employing around 700 people. This included the largest tracking station outside North America, at Carnarvon in Western Australia.
Australian tracking stations played important roles in the Apollo 11 mission.
The Carnarvon station provided the ‘go/no go’ confirmation that sent the Apollo spacecraft out of Earth orbit and on its way to the Moon. Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla, in the ACT, provided vital telecommunications and telemetry links throughout the mission. During the operations at the Moon, Tidbinbilla supported the Command Module, Columbia, in lunar orbit, while Honeysuckle Creek maintained contact with the Lunar Module. Carnarvon, Honeysuckle Creek and the Orroral Valley tracking station received the data from scientific instruments that the astronauts left on the Moon.
Australia also played a crucial role in helping NASA bring TV images of the first Moonwalk to the world. As Neil Armstrong climbed out of the Lunar Module, 3 stations received the signals: Goldstone, in California, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes radio Telescope, in NSW.
During the first 9 minutes of the broadcast, NASA alternated between the Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek signals, searching for the best quality images. They began with the Goldstone pictures, but the image quality was poor, due to technical issues.
The Honeysuckle Creek pictures were very grainy because of the low signal strength received by the smaller dish. But these were the images transmitted to the world when Neil Armstrong took that ‘giant leap for Mankind’.
Finally, 8 minutes and 51 seconds into the broadcast Houston switched to Parkes. This telescope was now relaying higher quality signals, as the Moon had risen far enough for the main detector to view.
NASA stayed with the Parkes transmission for the rest of the 2.5-hour telecast. During the Apollo 11 broadcast, the radio telescope staff resolutely operated the antenna well outside its safety parameters while a violent windstorm struck the area.
With help from the Overseas Telecommunications Commission and Postmaster General’s Department, the signals received in Australia were relayed to NASA in Houston. They were then broadcast around the world to an estimated audience of 600 million people. At the time this was the largest ever TV audience, and the event created a powerful collective experience viewers.
The Apollo 11 mission was an outstanding example of humanity’s ability to come together to solve almost insurmountable problems and work towards a common goal. The program was conducted in an open, transparent way that allowed the world to experience the Moon landing as a communal event.