Mike Dinn, John Saxon, Gillian Schoenborn, Bryan Sullivan, Andrew Thomas, Andrew Tink, 19 July 2019
STEPHANIE BULL: Good evening. What a turnout is this, it’s amazing. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Stephanie Bull and I’m the Acting Director here at the National Museum of Australia. Now I would like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri people, who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we are meeting and pay respect to their elders both past and present. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in attendance today.
We are honoured to have such a stellar panel here with us tonight.
Tonight, we will be revisiting the history-making role of Australia in the Apollo moon landing. The panel here tonight will discuss how this central role, in tracking Apollo and relaying the video feed, came about. The extraordinary challenges the team faced, including technical hurdles and last-minute changes. In July 1969 Canberra was at the heart of the Apollo missions to land on the moon and tonight’s panel discussion is a rare opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of when Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station transmitted the live television coverage of Neil Armstrong’s giant first step to a worldwide audience of 600 million people.
I would like to welcome Andrew Tink, author of the recent book, Honeysuckle Creek: The Story of Tom Reid, a Little Dish and Neil Armstrong’s First Step and former Liberal MP in the New South Wales parliament. Andrew’s first book, William Charles Wentworth won the Nib Award for Literature in 2010. His other books are Lord Sydney, Air Disaster Canberra and Australia: 1901–2001. Andrew is our esteemed host for the evening and will shortly introduce you to our panellists.
I’d like to extend a warm welcome to everyone here tonight but especially to all those trackers, from around Australia who are here in the audience and also those who are joining us through YouTube, watching the event live streamed. Your efforts at Honeysuckle Creek and other Australian facilities including Tidbinbilla and Carnarvon Tracking Stations and the Parkes radio telescope contributed to this defining moment in Australian and world history.
I also welcome Mr Anthony Murfett, Deputy Head of the Australian Space Agency, who is able to join us tonight and as some of you might know, we have a very special guest here with us tonight. Please welcome Astronaut Dr Andy Thomas, who joins us for this remarkable panel event. Dr Thomas’s achievements include: four space shuttle flights between 1996 and 2005, 177 days in space, a spacewalk and four months living in zero gravity on Mir Space Station.
Now before I hand over to Andrew, I’d like to share this observation by Neil Armstrong in a letter he sent to the Canberra Honeysuckle Trackers, on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, in 2009.
‘It was an exciting time for many of you and it certainly was exciting for me. We were involved in doing what many thought to be impossible: putting humans on earth’s moon. Science fiction writers thought it would be possible. HG Wells, Jules Verne and other authors found ways to get people to the moon but none of those writers foresaw any possibility of the lunar explorers being able to communicate with earth, transmit data, position information or transmit moving pictures of what they saw back to earth. The authors foresaw my part of the adventure but your part was beyond their comprehension.’
I’d like now to handover to Andrew, who will introduce the panel.
ANDREW TINK: Thanks very much Stephanie, I too would like to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this land and to acknowledge their elders past, present and future. The panel with me tonight are, nearest to me, Mike Dinn, the former Deputy Director, Brian Sullivan who was a computer technician and programmer. Gillian Schoenborn who was a communications technician and John Saxon, who was the Operation’s Supervisor on the day of the moon landing. Now we’re going to have a little bit of fun later because we’ve got a photo of each of them as they looked 50 years ago and we’re going to get them to introduce themselves a little bit more fully in a few moments.
But what I want to do now is just talk about two things by way of introduction. First of all, how the tracking station worked and then secondly, a little bit about Lunar TV and what that was all about. But before I go there, can I just ask those in the room who had anything to do with Apollo 11 on the day, whether you were at Honeysuckle, Tidbinbilla or anywhere else for that matter, or working in OTC or the PMG or whatever. Could you please raise your hands, if you were involved back then? That’s wonderful, really wonderful, thank you. Thanks very much.
Now I’ve got a bit of a request of you please, I’m going to make a few mistakes during the evening because I’m a lawyer politician and know diddly-squat about science, tracking and engineering, except what these guys have told me. So if I make mistakes, please don’t correct my work while we’re up here talking. Okay, first of all tracking station, can we have the first image up please of the Honeysuckle Tracking Station? That’s basically Honeysuckle as it appeared in 1969, an 85-foot dish at the top of the hill and then the operations building in the near foreground there.
There were three of these tracking stations around the world, apart from Honeysuckle here in Canberra, there was Madrid in Spain and also Goldstone in California. No accident that there were three in those locations because the earth spins once every 24 hours on its axis. The moon remains relatively static in the sky during an Apollo mission and so for NASA to keep continuous communication with astronauts, on or near the moon, with the earth spinning around, they needed three tracking stations, each of which had a view period of about eight hours, give or take and some overlap.
So what did the tracking stations do? Basically, they kept mission control in touch with astronauts on or near the moon. I put it this way, but for these three tracking stations, Mission Control would have been deaf, dumb and blind to astronauts on the moon and the astronauts on the moon would have been deaf, dumb and blind to the people at Mission Control. These three stations were as important to an Apollo program as the Saturn V rocket that hurled them up into space and unless these three stations were in a state of green light readiness, there would be no launch at the Cape. They were that fundamentally important.
So what did they do? They could generate an uplink, a very powerful uplink to travel a quarter of a million miles across space, that carried voice. It carried remote commands to the spacecraft and it carried a ranging code which would bounce back down. The ranging code would tell Mission Control where the astronauts were at any time. The downlink, coming back from the spacecraft, especially when it was the Lunar Module, just a tiny little thing, the computers were very small, the transmitters on the Lunar Module, very small and so these were very powerful receiving dishes, and they could receive these faint signals and then enhance them and send them on to Mission Control.
Put it this way, in relation to voice, there was only ever one person and Andy might correct me but only ever one person at Mission Control who had authority to speak the astronauts and he was called the CAPCOM, and he was an astronaut himself. He did all the speaking on behalf of Mission Control, to the astronauts in space, so his voice would go up and then Armstrong or Aldrin, when they were on the moon, would be able to reply. These signals travelled at 186,000 miles a second, the distance to the moon is a quarter of a million miles, they could almost carry on a conversation in real time. Not quite but pretty much.
Also, coming on the downlink and these guys will tell you, it was really the centrepiece of tracking, not TV that was a frippery as far as they’re concerned, was telemetry. Mission Control would know what Armstrong’s heart rate was when he stepped onto the moon and in fact, it was a 112 beats a minute. Aldrin, lounging around in a Lunar Module, was only 81 beats a minute, so Neil Armstrong, despite the way he sounded, was really pumping away there. They also carried things like heart rates, respiration rates, fuel levels in the Lunar Module, all that sort of thing was incredibly important downlink data and they were backed up in Canberra here by Tidbinbilla.
Tidbinbilla was what was known as a Wing Station, just as capable as Honeysuckle Creek and they shared the load at times but more of that later. And also, right toward the end, just before the Apollo 11 launch, Parkes was brought on board as an extra downlink facility. Parkes couldn’t transmit anything, it’s a radio telescope. All it could do was receive but it was a good receiver and it was an extra link in the chain to add, as the engineers say, redundancy in case any other system broke down. So that’s just a thumbnail sketch of the tracking station’s work.
The other thing I’d like to talk about briefly is TV and if we could just go to the shot of the Lunar TV, I think its photo, B. Can we just put photo, B, up please? No, that’s the Servo ball. Photo, B, is the upside-down camera. Just after President Kennedy made his promise to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, a debate broke out within NASA about whether or not it was necessary, or desirable to try and film this first step live to a worldwide audience. The people who were against doing that and there were many of them said, TV has nothing to do with the safety of this mission. It’s not at all important when it comes to whether or not this mission will succeed or fail, or really anything to do with the astronaut’s safety.
They in fact said, it could actually be dangerous because in those days, TV cameras weighed a lot and weight on the Lunar Module was absolutely critical. Those in favour said, well, I’ve got four friends of mine here from Arizona, and American tax payers were saying, ‘we paid billions of dollars to support this program, the least we can do is see it live in our lounge rooms, whenever whoever it is steps onto the moon’. And that debate went on for about 10 years.
In the meantime, NASA made a decision to proceed with the development of a camera on the off chance the go ahead was given and so this tiny little light weight camera was developed, an absolute miracle of technology. Developed by Stan Lebar, weighed only six pounds, looked like a lopsided baking dish, to withstand the heat and cold of the moon, the light and the dark, all the rest of it. There was just one problem, even at its size there was difficulty stowing it in the Lunar Module, so it was stowed in an external stowage bay and the only way they could stow it was upside down so it would begin filming from an upside-down position.
On each of the TV monitors at the tracking stations, there was a little switch inserted, worth about 5 cents in a hardware store back in the day. And each of the tracking station technicians that were responsible for TV, had to remember to flip the switch the other way around, to flip the upside-down picture, the right way up, and this becomes very important in the story a little later on. Anyway, it wasn’t until late June in 1969, that the go ahead was given for Lunar Television and this little camera was included.
Now just before we go on, I’ve already jumped a point. Can we just go back please and show the Collin’s Servo ball clip please? We saw there, footage of the Servo ball in operation at Honeysuckle Creek.
The Servo ball, thanks to an anonymous donor who I think is in the audience but I’m sworn not to say who, has donated this Servo ball to this museum and later on, back here they’ll show the display of various things associated with Apollo 11, and taking pride of place in the middle is that Servo ball. Now in the real world, correct me if I’m wrong, Mike, the dish was driven by computer but wherever it had to be driven manually, it was driven by that Servo ball and I would describe it as something equivalent to a modern day computer mouse, in the way that it operated.
All right, well now it’s about time these guys had a bit of a go. I will now introduce each one of them. We can show photo, C, please. This guy right here. Come on Mike.
MIKE DINN: You can see it gave me grey hairs doing this job, didn’t have a single grey hair at that time. I was Tom Reid’s deputy, at Honeysuckle, both Tom and I arrived about the same time. Tom moved from the Orroral Valley station about mid-67, I came on board about August 67 from Tidbinbilla. I’d had about 18 months at Tidbinbilla, working at the surveyor soft landing on the moon and that experience went over fairly well. One of the roles of the Department Supply Deputy Director which I was, was to be closely involved with operations, sit and run operations in real time. I sat in what we call the left-hand seat of operations for Apollo 7 through 13, so that was my role Andrew.
ANDREW TINK: Thank you. Next photo please. John Saxon.
JOHN SAXON: Who is that handsome young bloke? I don’t know, I don’t recognise him.
MIKE DINN: Read aloud and clear is the expression.
JOHN SAXON: I was just so incredibly lucky to collect that job.
ANDREW TINK: So you’re Operations Supervisor, so just tell us what that involved, briefly, please?
JOHN SAXON: Well it was a two-man console and the man on the left was controlling the station as a whole and answering to various positions at Houston. The man on the right was controlling command, telemetry, voice and answering a different set of people at Houston, so it was all good fun, enjoyed it.
ANDREW TINK: Next photo, please. I don’t recognise you.
MIKE DINN: The glasses.
ANDREW TINK: Come on Bryan, Bryan Sullivan.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: I joined Honeysuckle Creek in 1966 and I was only 26 years old, and the interviewing Manager said to me, ‘Have you had any experience in computing?’, and I said, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve just done several courses in computers in Sydney’. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘I know where we’re going to slot you. You can be in the computer area’, so I thought, ‘Well that’s good, I’ve got this job,’ and I spent eight years there and my job was to keep the computer systems operating during missions, and other times as well.
We had to have a thorough understanding in that computer section, of how computers worked, from the hardware point of view and from the software point of view. And we also had to have an awareness of the mission and what was expected of the operations during that time. So eight years and I thought well, this can’t go on forever, so that was me, so there you go.
ANDREW TINK: Thank you. Now, Gillian Schoenborn, some of you would remember her as Gillian Morris when she worked at the Tracking Station but Gillian, can you please tell us what you, oh, there’s a photo of you, look at that.
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Sorry, I just dropped my thing. Yes, I was a Communications Technician and Operator, and I had also come over to Honeysuckle Creek from Orroral Valley. I’d only worked there for about three months, having spent four years in the Navy, in communications and the idea of the Apollo Mission seemed much more exciting than the Orroral Valley which was earth orbital data and my job was to send and receive telex messages mainly, and then pass them to the various, necessary departments in the station. A lot of them went through the window straight to John, in the Operations and then also telemetry, and other departments. I was there until after Apollo 11, I left in the September, I thought we’ve done it now and I can safely leave.
ANDREW TINK: Thank you. Now, I briefly mentioned Honeysuckle, Tidbinbilla and Parkes but I’m acutely aware that there were many more components, especially here in the ACT, that were involved in this effort for Apollo 11. Mike, as a former Deputy Director, can you just briefly outline what the other components were, please?
MIKE DINN: Certainly Andrew, there’s a danger here that I will forget some element. There were so many people involved, even in the Canberra area, let alone the ACT and Australia but I’ll do my best. At Honeysuckle we had 120-odd people, I think, 25-odd on shift but in addition we had Tidbinbilla, the Deep Space Station 42, as it was known in those days, with an identical front end, that’s transmitters, receivers and that sort of equipment. From the point of view of transmitting and receiving, Tidbinbilla had a major role and just in passing, it was the one actually providing the two-way communication with Mike Collins when he was orbiting, on his own, around the moon. I had the privilege of talking to Mike Collins just a couple of days ago, at the Cape.
At that time the Goldstone Station was doing the uplink but then, when we had gotten the signals out of the station, voice, telemetry, data, teletype, it had to get back to Houston and there was a whole area of hundreds of thousands of people around Australia, working to that. PMG, as it was in those days, Telstra, into what it’s evolved now. We had voice and data lines that went into Deakin. We had a special ceremony this morning, unveiling a plaque that’s going to go on this building in Kent Street, Deakin, where all NASA communications went through. So PMG, scattered all over the country, had a big role and then OTC, in those days the domestic and international communications were separate and so when the signal had gone to Sydney, it was then handed over to OTC, to send over the Pacific via the Moree Ground Satellite Station.
Those are some of the major elements, I’m already forgetting places like Carnarvon. It was quite a small town over there, the tracking station over there though was one of the most important in the network. In fact, it was the biggest in the network. They’re having their own 50 celebration over there now. Quite a number of the flight controllers at Houston remember Carnarvon well because in the Gemini days, flight controllers actually were resident at the stations, so people like Ed Fendell and those flight controllers knew it well. Then of course there was Parkes, as a separate additional receiving facility, as Andrew has accurately said.
Although the television from Parkes, was teed off at Sydney and then chosen between either Honeysuckle or Parkes, the telemetry, and few people probably know this, was on sent to Honeysuckle and we processed the telemetry received at Parkes, and the voice received at Parkes and we could choose which ones we used. Had there been any scratchy communications the extra gain of the dish of Parkes would have been invaluable for telemetry. As things worked out, with the nominal communication links, the extra capability of Parkes wasn’t really needed or used and when I talk about all the people involved, there’s no limit to it.
The fellow who used to bring the diesel up to the station, the gardeners, the canteen everybody and I stress this in all these various interviews that I’ve been going over the last few days, it was a team. Everybody had a part to play and that included all the stations, and all these ground facilities.
ANDREW TINK: Thank you. Now, Honeysuckle, most of you are probably aware of where it is but it’s right up in the high country, in the Australian Capital Territory. Not easy to get to, certainly not back in the day and can we show the photo, of the wash away on the main screen please? This gives you an idea of what could happen on the road up to Honeysuckle. I think this one’s of the old Apollo road but it literally got to a point where cars would be stopped on either side of a wash away and the duckboards would be brought out. Now, it was also a problem getting to the tracking station at nearby Orroral Valley. Gillian you’ve got a story about getting to Orroral Valley.
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Yes, on my very last shift, going out for the midnight shift. There were four of us in the car, where you car pooled in company cars and it was mandatory to wear seatbelts, even though the law didn’t apply in general. It was a moonlit night and we came across a mob of kangaroos, just when we were right on the dirt road, on the very steep hill going up. The driver braked, of course, and the car lost control, it flipped and went over, down the side of the hill and all four of us got away without any major injuries. We had cuts and abrasions but the seatbelts definitely saved our lives and it was the next day that I did go to work, it was at Honeysuckle Creek, so I didn’t even get any sick leave but I still have the scar on my knee to prove it.
ANDREW TINK: I just want to get this straight, this is a kangaroo that caused this?
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Yes, it was a mob of kangaroos, like about four or five.
ANDREW TINK: I had my four American friends up at Honeysuckle this morning and they weren’t happy because they didn’t see a kangaroo.
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Take them out at night …
ANDREW TINK: It sounds like it’s not something to go through. There’s also a problem with snow up there, from time to time?
BRYAN SULLIVAN: One thing with the carpark, we used to tear up the hill and park the car. Everybody would jump out because more often we would be five minutes late, so we’d rush in but what you had to be very careful of, when you stepped out of that car, you could have been standing on about half an inch of ice and it would have been very embarrassing to have slipped over at that stage, on that particular day and broken your ankle. It would have been a very disappointing exercise, so most of us were pretty careful on that but it was icy.
ANDREW TINK: Somebody told me you lose skin if you touched metal with a bare hand? Is that right?
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Something like that, yes.
ANDREW TINK: Does anybody know about Bogong moths?
JOHN SAXON: Yes.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Oh, yes.
ANDREW TINK: John?
JOHN SAXON: Yes, Bogong moths migrate, as most people probably know, from Queensland down to Bogong mountains, I think, in Victoria, if I remember rightly? They used to be a bit of a hazard. The transmitters, in particular, had little air veins to make sure that the cooling air was going properly and the transmitters wouldn’t work if that air was interrupted, and Bogong moths used to do that. I remember one time, the transmitter tripped off and I had to write the post-mission report, and I wrote, ‘The transmitter was tripped due to a greasy Italian moth’. You wouldn’t say such things these days.
ANDREW TINK: Did that go through to Mission Control?
JOHN SAXON: Absolutely, and I got an immediate response to that status message which said, ‘We from the brotherhood will come and break your kneecaps if you repeat anything about greasy Italian moths’ but anyhow, it was good stuff.
ANDREW TINK: So Honeysuckle was opened in early 1967 and for a while there, there was nothing to track. Which is to say, there was no Apollo spacecraft to track but you guys, under the eagle eye of Tom Reid, the Director at the time, were brought up to speed using simulations. A little bit like an airline pilot, they don’t let airline pilots loose in passenger jets to do their practice, I’ve got a son who’s a pilot, they don’t do that. They train you up on simulators and it’s only when you can get through a simulated test that they let you into a cockpit, and when they let you into a cockpit, you’ve got a paying load of passengers, it’s just like that. You were brought up to speed on simulations, so tell me a little bit about that please, John?
JOHN SAXON: Well, they were an interesting situation the simulations. There were several types. One type was an aircraft simulating spacecraft and they would fly backwards and forwards, and we would track them and treat them like spacecraft. And we had people on the ground watching us and making sure we were doing the right things. These are people who came out in that aircraft. We were required to do some funny things in those simulations, especially the internal ones because we could simulate everything in house, except for the American accents. We weren’t very good at that.
MIKE DINN: We had the laconic Australian accents taking first steps on the moon in later years.
JOHN SAXON: ‘G’day sports, we’re on the moon’. No, it was fun but we had one situation where we set it up that one of the guys in the telemetry area was going to simulate a heart attack and he fell down, and he was very, very good. He simulated a heart attack, the idea was that we had to work around all that and carry him off on a stretcher, while everything carried on the same way, so it was transparent to the outside world. But nevertheless, things had happened and this guy, in telemetry, who a lot of you will know, was so good at that, that there was another fellow in telemetry who at the end of this pass, went outside and was sick. He thought it was real. He was so good.
ANDREW TINK: Now Bryan, I don’t know whether you’re prepared to talk publicly?
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Another thing with the aircraft, to give you some idea, this was a big aircraft, full of Apollo simulation equipment and a crew in it and it used to fly, sometimes around Canberra in circles, at various altitudes and we used to track it with the antenna. We used to do that exercise, sometimes at night and I remember one particular simulation run with this aircraft. We saw in the Canberra Times the next morning, lots of people complaining about this mysterious plane flying around and it had big bright strobe light underneath, so that when we were trying to find it or acquire it, we could see it and we could steer the antenna on to it. Anyway, it flew around and around, and we found that we were getting complaints from all sorts of people and one of them appeared in the Canberra Times that next morning, from Parkwood Eggs, they were complaining that the chooks were refusing to lay. There was a crisis in eggs. Anyway, sorry Andrew.
ANDREW TINK: No, no, that’s all right. That’s a good story.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: I couldn’t resist that.
ANDREW TINK: You were right to interrupt me, absolutely but I want you to tell what I think’s a better story. I don’t know whether you’re prepared to fess up, I know you don’t like using the word hack. Are you prepared to fess up about how you hacked the incoming command line?
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Andrew, I was hoping you weren’t going to use that dreadful terminology.
ANDREW TINK: I think it’s a bit late in the piece for the American government to put you in jail for doing this and you had all the right intentions but you better say what happened.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Yes, I’ll have to confess. We did tap into the command line. Notice I didn’t use the same terminology over here, Andrew. You don’t know, there might be AFP people in the audience, looking on, or somebody of that ilk but however, we tapped into the command line because we were having trouble in those days, doing a thing called, data flow tests and when it came to doing the command data flow test, we’d be ready. NASA over there at Goddard Space Flight Center would say, ‘Are you configured Honeysuckle for the command test? Affirmative. Stand by’, and then nothing would happen, and we’d sit there for about several minutes, and they’d come back again and say, ‘Can you confirm you’ve got the right operational program loaded into your command computer?’ Well of course we did, fancy that, how ridiculous.
Anyway, we went along with it and they said, ‘Can you reload your command computer at this point and initialise etc’. So we did that, that took about 10 minutes and we told them we were ready to go again. Away they’d go again with the test and nothing would happen again. Now my colleague, Ron Hicks, he may be out there, I hope so? Ron and I looked at the flashing lights on the computer and I said to Ron, ‘There’s far more information coming in for this three little digit command, than there should be.’ And he said, ‘Yes, something funny going on there’, and I said, ‘We need some software to diagnose what they’re sending us?’ And Ron of course, being senior to me said, ‘Okay, you write something that’ll read that in’.
So yours truly, had to write something and we kept that, unapproved tampering with the command line in, without telling anybody because that chap Laurie Turner, who John mentioned earlier said, ‘Listen, if you ever get a good idea, do not tell management.’ He said, ‘The first thing you do, you implement and you run it, and prove that it works, then you tell management.’ And he said, ‘That way, you short circuit that problem of management saying they want a written proposal and then it goes to the chief engineer, he wants a diagram with a written proposal. Then it goes down to the Department of Supply, Mike.’
MIKE DINN: Now you tell me.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: And then they sit on it for a week or two and after that, you forget it, you know, the problem’s gone. What problem are you talking about? Oh, the problem we had two weeks ago, so we never told anybody and we kept running this, what we call a patch in the command line, so we could do this illicit operation. So I wrote the software and we analysed it, and we found out they were sending us a lot more information down there than we expected. And I gave it a name because I said, well first of all, we’ve got the header message, we’ve got the Apollo Command and we’ve got the trailer message.
Well that sounded pretty impressive, so we stuck with that for a while but I didn’t know at that stage we were looking at something called metadata. Hey, do you hear that on the radio? They’ve got politicians in parliament talking about metadata and what a mess they’re making of it.
I’ve never heard such a technical explanation which meant absolutely nothing, so eventually we had to admit it and in the later missions, that connection became permanent where my software ended up as being simulation software, so that we could simulate spacecraft commands, any tick of the clock, any time for training purposes. And we did that, without involving NASA, Goddard Space Flight Centre or Houston, so it was a great tool.
ANDREW TINK: This is a very elliptical admission that they hacked NASAs most sensitive line. I’ll leave it at that. No, he says, no.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Well, it’s quite possible there might be someone out there from IBM that’ll probably come up after and offer me a contract.
ANDREW TINK: No, no, you’ll be good.
JOHN SAXON: I was just going to say that Bryan’s software came in very handy when we had the Americans come over in their Super Constellations simulating spacecraft and they were expecting us do voice and things like that but all of a sudden, there was Bryan, commanding the camera, up in the aeroplane, watching all these guys up there. They got a heck of a shock out of that.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Well the camera was sitting there with the other simulation crew and I was down on the computer, and I discovered that I could command this camera. We could pan it and we could tilt it up and down, and we could zoom it in and out, and this was great fun, wasn’t it, John?
JOHN SAXON: Absolutely.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Until I scanned down the passage way of the plane, past the guys all with their instruments and that, and guess what they had on the door entry, into the flight deck? The latest Playboy centrefold. Well, the zoom got a thorough workout, zoomed in and out, and all of a sudden, someone who I don’t know, I’d love to know who he was, spoilt the whole thing and pulled the plug out, somewhere. So that was the end but anyway the camera did work and we proved that.
ANDREW TINK: We’ve got to move on, can I just have the next photo up, please? This is Tom Reid, the Station Director at the time and the fellow on the right is, George Harris Junior, who was in charge of all simulations. He was the really big, bad guy who made these fellas lives and Gillian’s lives hell with all these simulation exercises and so what Tom is doing here, is presenting George Harris Junior with a set of sandals and you’ll see the station’s wallaby mascot is helping there, and the plaque on the bottom says something like, ‘To George Harris Junior in the hope that his feet will stay dry while he walks on water.’
They had a real sense of humour these people and George was British actually. George was not American, he was British, Tom was a Scotsman and I think the British understood Tom’s sense of humour better than the Americans did, I should say. I’m just going to briefly go through the next part, we’ve got to make up a little bit of ground.
The Apollo 11 flight plan was signed off on the 1st July, 1969. It was a 364-page minute-by-minute timeline for Mission Control and the Apollo astronauts. Around that time when pushed by somebody in the media, one flight controller said, we want to stick to the flight plan but you know how flight plans are, sometimes you have to change them and this is what happened. Initially Tidbinbilla, was designated to track the Lunar Module, so Tidbinbilla would have done Lunar TV and all that sort of thing and would have tracked Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, and Honeysuckle was to track the Command Module, which was Michael Collins orbiting the moon but all that changed about three days after Apollo 11 blasted off. There was a fire, so can you just very briefly, Mike, say what happened with the fire.
MIKE DINN: One of the transmitters at Tidbinbilla, had some horrible short, burnt up the transmitter. Enormous efforts went in by the staff at Tidbinbilla and around Australia to get spare parts. The transmitter was repaired and the people who did it deserve medals, however the confidence of Houston was dented a little bit and that led to a change in plans, Andrew.
ANDREW TINK: So what we’ve got here, is the flight plan and from here on, it just is constantly changing because of different circumstances, and leads to a point where it was Honeysuckle, contrary to all expectation that was right in the hot seat when Armstrong was at the bottom of the ladder. We’re moving now to the day of the landing, the 21st July, 1969 in Australia, on the east coast and in the United States, where it was getting towards evening on the 20th July. The flight plan designated that the moon walk would take place at 4 pm, on the 21st July eastern Australian time and that meant that Parkes would be the primary receiver.
Parkes was all set up and the media was full of Parkes, well the media is still full of Parkes but I won’t got there. The media was full of Parkes being the downlink for Lunar TV and indeed it was. It had this massive dish and it was all good to go and Honeysuckle would be its back up, while playing a primary role of receiving telemetry, and such like and by 4 pm, the Goldstone station in California would have lost the signal, would have been out of view of the moon. The Lunar Module lands at quarter past six in the morning, eastern Australian time, on the 21st July and all is proceeding according to plan, and then sometime around 8 a.m. tell us what happened Bryan, briefly if you can? You were listening on Net 1.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Yes, I was listening on Net 1 and I noticed in the Operations Room, the three people in there weren’t paying attention to Net 1. They were sorting out some other problem and periodically, out in the Computer Room, we could relax and listen to all sorts of other conversations, and I heard this on Net 1 and I thought, ‘My god, that’s a massive change, that’s going to be really complicated.’ So I could see John, he had his head through the glass window into the Comms room and he’s having a great chat with somebody, and I’m waving at him, and I’m going, Net 1. He’s caught my eye straight away and I could see him go to the console and he’s talking away after that, and I thought that’s good, he’s picked it up.
But when you think of the sophistication of our headsets and we could listen on about seven or eight channels at once, and we could differentiate the conversations, it required a hand signal to get from the Computer Room into the Operations Room, so that John could pick up Net 1 and listen to the astronauts suddenly changing the flight plan. I thought that was pretty neat.
JOHN SAXON: I’m sure that we were actually discussing something very, very sensitive.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Of course, John.
ANDREW TINK: What was changed here was, the flight plan said, you’re coming out at 4 pm. Armstrong and Aldrin must have had a bit of a chat about it after they landed in the Lunar Module and decided that if Mission Control thought they were going to hang around, and have a rest for six hours, rather than step out on the moon as soon as they could, Mission Control was not realistic and so they basically said to Mission Control, ‘We want to come out as soon as we can.’ Mission Control realised that if Armstrong wanted to come out, he’d come out whenever he liked, there was nothing Mission Control could tell him to do to stop him and so basically, he was given permission to come out when he was ready.
When he and Aldrin were ready, they were given permission to come out and this threw things into a state of confusion because everything had to be recalibrated. Everything had to be brought forward, so Gillian, you were in the Comms Room, tell us what it was like? There was stuff incoming and outgoing in a tsunami, wasn’t there?
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Yes, telexes and paper just kept coming through in a mad flurry because there were all these changes, and things had to be distributed around the station to all the Operations areas. Papers were going everywhere and new instructions happening, and so we were on our toes for that.
ANDREW TINK: You earnt your money at that time?
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Yes.
ANDREW TINK: But you got it done.
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Yes, we did.
ANDREW TINK: You all got it done. Now Tom Reid, the Station Director, had a surprise up his sleeve for these people. Not a surprise that he was happy with but he’d been contacted the previous afternoon by the Prime Minister’s office and the Prime Minister, John Gorton, wanted to come on a station tour on the morning of the moon walk. Well, Tom was not happy about this but he had to work both sides of the street, he had to keep the government happy and he had to keep the trackers happy, and he had an inkling that the trackers would be furious that the Prime Minister was going to ruin their morning.
So he didn’t tell anybody that the Prime Minister was coming and so the Prime Minister turns up at Honeysuckle Creek in his Bentley, flying the Australian flag and all the stuff, with an entourage, with some very senior NASA people. With his security detail, with Ainsley Gotto, who some of you might remember? And various other people, and also, much to Tom Reid’s horror, an ABC TV film crew. Tom takes one look at the sound recording equipment that the sound recordist has got and says, ‘You’re not bringing that stuff into my Operations Room’, so the poor sound recordist was left to cool his heels in reception with Ainsley Gotto.
The Prime Minister came into the Operations Room with Tom and proceeded to be introduced to people. If we could have photo, I, up please? Here’s the Prime Minister with Paul Mullen, who’s the Servo Operator. The Prime Minister’s busily waggling the dish around, you saw the Collins video a minute ago, so he’s waggling the dish around, right, it’s pretty helpful.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: With a track ball.
ANDREW TINK: Yes, and that’s the track ball there, which is now behind here. Next one, show photo, J, please? Here we are in the Operations Control room and the Prime Minister’s standing there with Tom Reid, and in the foreground is a pretty angry looking John Saxon. John, tell us what was going on there?
JOHN SAXON: We did find out that he was coming around eventually and it was right in the middle of our countdown, testing out the station for the biggest day of the year and I didn’t think it was a very good idea at all. However, we put up with but the thing I like about that photo, not only the handsome guy in the front.
ANDREW TINK: Sorry, who’s that?
JOHN SAXON: It was 50 years ago, come on but have you noticed this was a tiny room and almost air tight, and everybody is smoking. It was blue in there. It was as bad as Houston. They went away eventually and we got on with the job.
MIKE DINN: I’ve got a 10 second theory on this. We all smoked in those days, I was 2 packets a day and we got to the moon, now nobody smokes and we don’t get to the moon. There’s some correlation there.
JOHN SAXON: Somebody could write a PHD on that.
ANDREW TINK: So what have they got to smoke to get to Mars, Mike?
MIKE DINN: Well, cigars, I suppose.
ANDREW TINK: All right, so next photo, please? Now this is an important photo in the sense that this is the Prime Minister talking to Ed von Renouard, who was the TV technician at Honeysuckle Creek. Just above Ed’s head there, I don’t know if you can make it out, there is a switch and it’s got a Dymo label above it. A little printed label that’s got a Dymo label underneath it, that is the reversing switch and depending on whether or not the TV technician remembered to flip the switch, the world either would see a photo that was upside down or a photo that was right side up.
So that little switch is everything. Next one, please.
JOHN SAXON: Andrew, I was just going to say, that we could simulate absolutely everything that happened in those spacecrafts.
ANDREW TINK: Except a Prime Ministerial visit, right?
JOHN SAXON: No, I’m talking now about the TV. Nobody knew what that TV was going to look like. Nobody at Houston or on the stations and it was quite amazing that Ed was able to recognise the fact that, you know, that’s the sky and that’s the lunar surface. He was really good, tweaked it up but, as Mike will always say, it was a team effort, wasn’t it, Mike?
ANDREW TINK: As a former Lawyer, Politician, this is about the only photograph I’ve ever seen, in connection with Honeysuckle Creek, that I instinctively understood. All the others had to be explained to me. I instinctively understand this because this is a politician with a photo opportunity. This is a Prime Minister with a photo opportunity. I used to try and do the same thing at my little lowly level and I gather, that the dish was moved out of its tracking alignment to facilitate Gorton’s photo opportunity here. When he left, I think it was just before 10 am or something, everybody was glad to see him go. Do you have any memory of him, Gillian, being there?
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Well actually, I know he was there but I think we were just too busy to even take too much notice. It’s not a big memory that I have of him being there. I certainly know he was there but, no, I think we were just too busy doing our job to take much notice of him, sorry.
ANDREW TINK: So we’re now in a situation where Gorton’s gone, the astronauts are suiting up, Andy, correct me if I’m wrong on this but suiting up is a very serious business because essentially, you’re turning yourself into a little mini spacecraft. You’re taking everything that supports you, as a living human being, outside into an incredibly hostile environment and unless you’re suited up absolutely, hermetically sealed, so to speak, with everything working, you’ll die a horrible death. Armstrong and Aldrin, took their time to suit up and the clock was ticking. It was estimated initially that Armstrong would emerge from the Lunar Module at about 11 am and this was right at the time when Honeysuckle would be getting a signal.
Right up to, including to the time that Gorton was visiting, Honeysuckle did not have a signal from the moon. It wasn’t in view but everybody was very, very busy getting ready for when that moment came. It was initially anticipated that Armstrong would be coming down the ladder, right around when Honeysuckle was getting its first signal, so this was a pretty fraught time but that time came and went. 11 am came and went, and Armstrong and Aldrin were still busy suiting up. Mike, you were putting the station through its paces and I think the culmination of all this was network, Honeysuckle, our status is green.
MIKE DINN: Yes, well I came on shift at the acquisition time and we all recognised it was going to be the biggest pass we’d ever done, certainly up until that point. It turned out, the biggest pass we ever did, half a century later and we were in constant contact with Houston. We didn’t go through these Gene Kranz, type of, rat-a-tat-tat things. I worked on a principle of negative reporting.
ANDREW TINK: Say as little as possible?
MIKE DINN: That was my philosophy, for what it was worth, that I’d get back up, as much feel good, positive reporting as I could and made sure there was room for the necessary reporting. Yes, I reported the station green, for the upcoming pass.
ANDREW TINK: You’ve got moon rise over Honeysuckle at 11.15 am, I think it was, and the station picks up the Eagle’s downlink signal and everything’s working perfectly.
MIKE DINN: Yes.
ANDREW TINK: Now at this point, the Parkes dish is not in view of the moon. It’s not in view of Tranquility Base, so just to explain this a little bit, Canberra and Parkes are on the same longitude. Which is to say, if you drive due North from Canberra, eventually you’ll get to Parkes. It also means, generally speaking, that the moon will rise over Canberra, at the same time that it rises over Parkes and therefore, Honeysuckle too. It’s different with the dishes because the Honeysuckle dish was a tracking dish and it could be angled down to zero degrees, so it could be angled right down to the horizon.
The Parkes dish, being a radio telescope, could only be angled down to 30 degrees above the horizon and for every 15 degrees elevation, NASA had a rule, it was an extra hour until moon rise. Putting all this in plain English, although the moon rose over Parkes and Canberra at the same time, it rose over the Honeysuckle dish 2 hours before it rose over the Parkes dish and this critical also in this story. Hamish Lindsay is here, one of our most distinguished former trackers, who’s written a wonderful book. One of Hamish’s many talents was as a commercial photographer, he wasn’t just a great tracker, he was also a commercial photographer.
Tom Reid had designated him to follow the Prime Minister around in the morning, taking all sorts of shots of Gorton and then, just before Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he sent Hamish out to take a photograph of the dish, so Tom was an engineer but he also had a keen sense of history. Have we got the next photo up, please, of the dish? That’s Hamish’s photo of the dish at Honeysuckle, taken right at the time Armstrong was coming down the ladder and they were getting a strong signal at that time. I’m sorry, I’ve got to get through a little bit of this.
Armstrong crawls backwards across a metal platform, once he’s emerged from the Lunar Module and he crawls towards a ladder which is attached to one of the landing struts. As he gets to the top of the ladder, he pulls on a D-ring, a lanyard, and the lanyard activates the automatic TV camera.
So the TV camera, once activated, is exposed to the bottom of the ladder as the stowage bay in which it’s placed, flips out and down, and the little camera is upside down and starts filming from an upside-down position. I’m going to show you some footage in a minute but I better try and explain what you’re going to see first because it’s really the heart and soul of what happened. This is the proof, to me, that it was Honeysuckle that did the business, not Parkes. This remains a big issue for me, all right. These guys are much more relaxed about it. I get a bit toey about Parkes. This is actually the proof.
What you’ll see in a minute, a black and white video, it’s not of the best quality but think back to what your TV quality was like in 1969 and then think that this TV signal was travelling over a quarter of a million miles to get here, and then being transmitted, cables, microwaves, all sorts of other things from Honeysuckle to Houston and then out to the world. So what you’ll see first of all, when it comes on, is a section of a big room with a massive screen in the corner, which is a whole lot of blocks, that’s Mission Control. Then you’ll see an indecipherable picture suddenly comes on and that’s Goldstone, and you’ll hear the Goldstone person saying, ‘Goldstone online’ and a second later, although you won’t see the picture, you’ll hear Mike Dinn say, ‘Honeysuckle online’.
What you’re seeing is what was going out to the world. At that point, Honeysuckle was not going out to the world, although its image could be seen at Mission Control. What was going out to the world then was Goldstone. You’ll see obviously, that there are some problems with this footage that they were sending. Amongst other things, it was upside down. I remember this, I was at school, I was watching it and then you’ll hear the TV technician at Mission Control say, something to the effect of, have you flipped your reversing switch? And then it’s flipped, and it flips round to the right way but unfortunately, the poor technician at Goldstone, has been twiddling with his dials in the meantime to try and correct what he thinks are other errors and so even though the footage is right side up, it’s still a mess.
Then you’ll see about 1 minute 50 seconds into this little video clip, you will see, all of a sudden, the picture becomes clearer and a second or so after that, you’ll hear the technician at Mission Control say, all stations, we’ve switched video to Honeysuckle and the world from that point is seeing the Honeysuckle video, and then you’ll see Armstrong step onto the moon and say what he said, and all that’s from Honeysuckle. Perhaps we can just go to the video of Armstrong’s first step, please, and I won’t say anymore. It’s 2 minutes 47 seconds running time by the way, there are a couple of gaps but you’ll see. Can we go the video, please?
[Audio from video of moon landing]
MIKE DINN: Just a little technical interest there, which you may or may not have picked up. Did you notice the horizon was tilted? Tilted about 15 degrees. That was because the camera, although it was upside down, it wasn’t absolutely vertical upside down. One of the early pictures you saw there and so the ladder is shown appreciably steeper than otherwise, and anybody and everybody around the world, has only ever seen that shot with the tilted camera view.
However, Col Mackellar, is Col here? Col, our whizz at Honeysuckle Creek. I said one day, ‘Hey Col, can you correct that video to get rid of that 15 degrees?’ He said, ‘Oh yes’, because not only is he the absolute ultimate in space but he’s also a real whizz on the computers and there is, on Col’s website, a corrected version of that video with that 15 degree tilt taken out, and the ladder, nothing like as vertical as you see it on the screen. A little bit of an anecdote there.
ANDREW TINK: I just want to ask each of you now, did you have any idea that Armstrong was stepping onto the moon when he did, from the positions that you were in and when did you first see that footage? If I could just ask each of you in turn?
MIKE DINN: Yes, briefly we knew exactly what was happening although, as John said, we didn’t really know quite what we were seeing.
ANDREW TINK: You had a monitor?
MIKE DINN: In the Ops area we had a monitor but I’m not going to labour the point, but frankly, my big worry at the particular instant, was intermittent biomedical data coming down and I was very worried that that was a problem with us. However, I could work two jobs at once, I suppose and look at the TV, and worry about the [inaudible] biomed at the same time. I knew everybody had done their thing to that point anyway.
ANDREW TINK: Well when you’re spending billions and billions of American tax payers dollars, you’re in the PR business, whether you like it or not. I guess it’s putting on a show just as much as anything else, just at that particular time.
MIKE DINN: Whether we realised it or not.
ANDREW TINK: Bryan, what were you doing at that moment?
BRYAN SULLIVAN: At that moment, I was still concerned about all those people in the computer room. Anyway, they were standing behind me, just inside the door and ever since that day, I’ve referred to them as the Terracotta Warriors because they were absolutely mesmerised at the big TV above the computer equipment. A big black and white, 21 inch and nobody was moving. They were like statues and I’m so glad I let them stay there.
ANDREW TINK: Gillian, did you see any of this?
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: I was one of the Terracotta Warriors.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Oh, I didn’t know.
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: We’d snuck down from Comms and we were just having a look from the background.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Did you remember them all?
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: Yes.
ANDREW TINK: And you were in the Ops room, John?
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Even the gardener that we employed, got off his lawnmower and left it outside, and came in to have a look.
ANDREW TINK: You were in the Ops room, John, with Mike?
JOHN SAXON: Yes, it was an interesting moment, mainly because I was trying to make sure, exactly to the second, when Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Mainly because we had a sweepstake going. Who won the money? I don’t know, I don’t know if there was any money involved but anyhow, I did note it down to the second.
MIKE DINN: Just by-the-by, although there were 600 million people watching television, we couldn’t watch television. We did not have a television set at Honeysuckle because it couldn’t receive television there. You still can’t receive television there. You still can’t receive a mobile phone signal there, very insulated. So we had no choice but to look at the monitors coming down, of the real time but no television.
ANDREW TINK: Can we just get the photograph of the New York crowd up, please? This is a small group of a huge crowd in Central Park, New York. It was about 10 pm, on a sultry summer’s evening, the 20th July and those people are looking at massive TV monitors, set up by the CBS network and what they’re watching is Honeysuckle’s TV feed of Armstrong stepping onto the moon. The amazing thing is, just as in Australia back then, there were deep divisions within the community about the Vietnam war and what I think’s most amazing about this photo, is it just captures the moment when everybody was one. When the war was just for a second perhaps, put to the back of people’s minds and they were celebrating a really extraordinary achievement in history. They’re watching the Honeysuckle video feed. Now, if we could just go to photograph O, please?
As Mike would say, this is the heart and soul of what Honeysuckle and Tidbinbilla, and all the others were all about. This is actually a graph. This is some of the telemetry coming down, signed off by Tom Reid there, and it’s actually showing Armstrong and Aldrin’s EKGs at the time Armstrong stepped onto the moon. He’s at 112 and Aldrin is at 81. It’s this type of information that was just critical back at Mission Control and this is, as I say, the essence of what Honeysuckle did. Now even though he can’t be here, I really would like Tom Reid to say something. Tom never talked about what he did, he was the Director of the tracking station, he never talked about what he did except, as far as I know, in public on one occasion and that was over the way there at the Lakeside Hotel, in 1989 at the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11.
It was there that he said, for the only time in public I know, what actually happened. So we’ll just let him speak for himself but just before we do that, he was Glaswegian, he’s not that easy to follow, a bit easier than Mike Dinn, who’s a Yorkshireman but you’ll have to listen carefully to get it. Anyway, can we play that video, please?
[Audio played of Tom Reid.]
ANDREW TINK: Just in case you didn’t get that last bit, he said, ‘It hadn’t been planned that way but that’s the way it was, and god damn it, we were ready.’ It sort of summarises, I think, the whole thing very well. Now there’s one final photograph and I want Gillian to point out where she is in this photo.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: Just say the orange shirt.
GILLIAN SCHOENBORN: I don’t think I have to say much. It’s right in the centre front and when I first saw that photograph in Andrew’s book, and I was absolutely amazed. I have no recollection of being in that position in that photograph and I don’t know why I was?
ANDREW TINK: Well that’s the Honeysuckle team. That was taken about a month after.
MIKE DINN: One of the people not on there, is the person happening to take that photo, Hamish. Mr Saxon was skiving off somewhere and he’s not on there either.
JOHN SAXON: Taking a well-deserved break.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: He was Photoshopped in.
MIKE DINN: I did try and Photoshop him into this picture one time but I’m not very skilled at it.
BRYAN SULLIVAN: You didn’t miss out John.
ANDREW TINK: Now before asking Dr Andrew Thomas to say a few words, I’d just like to thank the trackers who are here and all the trackers in the room, and some trackers who are not. Some trackers who are no longer with us, for helping inform me through what they’ve said and written over the years. It allowed me to write a book about Honeysuckle Creek but there are also a couple of people that I just want to thank individually. One is Colin Mackellar, who Mike has already referred to, who had curated a wonderful website called, ‘The Tribute to Honeysuckle Creek’. If by any chance you haven’t had a look at that website, do yourselves a favour and have a look at it. It is a marvellous thing.
When I finished my manuscript, I needed a technical reader, in other words, I need somebody to tell me where I got technical stuff wrong and when I said to these guys, ‘I think I’m going to get Colin Mackellar to be my technical reader.’ You’ve got to understand, Colin is trained professionally as a geologist but he’s also an Anglican Minister. He’s not a tracker, he hasn’t been a tracker but they all said, ‘There is nobody better than Colin Mackellar, to read the technical aspects of your book. He knows more about tracking than we do’, and I’ve come to realise how true that is.
Secondly, and I didn’t mean it for it to be in this order, Hamish, but your contribution to this story of Honeysuckle Creek and space tracking generally, is just phenomenal. Hamish wrote a book which tracked every single mission, up to and including all the Apollo missions and beyond, and it’s absolutely on the money technically. It’s a great read and that scholarship, together with the photographs that you took over the years for Tom, and Tom knew what he was doing when appointing you to that job, have helped to provide so many of the images that are being used today, all around the world to explain what happened.
MIKE DINN: And by the way, Andrew, Hamish’s book is still on sale. I happened to get a second copy just three or four a weeks ago, so those of you who have not got it, it’s on sale at Amazon.
ANDREW TINK: It’s well worth it. Also, another person, I’m sorry, there are just two more people to go. The Honourable Margaret Reid AO, who would be known to everybody in Canberra, as the former Senator to the ACT and also President of the Australian Senate. Margaret Reid, it’s her late husband Tom, who was the Director and I could say to you, Margaret, you’re out there somewhere, oh yes, gosh you hide well. Just to thank you and all your family, for the most extraordinary support that you’ve given to me in this project. They all insisted that I send all draft chapters of my book to them for approval but the red pen didn’t come out very often and I thank you for that.
Finally, in terms of the manuscript I produced, which in many respects was an unwielding mess. I would like to thank my friend Charlotte Rogers-Brown, who is here from Phoenix, Arizona tonight, for her assistance in telling me what needed to be cut out. Which was about a third of the manuscript, so I’d like to thank you too, Charlotte. Now it’s my great privilege to ask Dr Andrew Thomas to come to the stage.
I have tried to figure out what a suitable introduction for you would be and I’ve sort of got it down to this, Andrew spent 177 days and 9 hours, and some extra minutes in space in his total career. Neil Armstrong spent 8 days and 14 hours in space, so it’s an amazing career that Andrew has had and we are all extremely honoured to have him amongst us tonight. And I also like to thank the American Embassy, and the representatives from the United States government, who are here tonight as well, for helping to facilitate and fund Dr Thomas’s trip out here to be with us, both here and quite rightly, also in Parkes. So Dr Thomas, would you come and say a few words, please?
ANDREW THOMAS: Thank you very much. I may have more space flight time than Neil but I would happily trade places with him. Those are fabulous stories, thank you so much for sharing them and giving us an insight into that amazing event. As we’ve been approaching the 50th anniversary of Apollo, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about what Apollo really achieved and what its major legacy is and different authorities have different things to say. You can find claims like, ‘Thank god for Apollo because it gave us Velcro and Teflon’ and you can find other equally absurd statements.
But in the bigger sense, Apollo has left a legacy of profound social and economic change in a decade known most for economic change. But if you read all these articles about Apollo, one thing they all agree on, was that Apollo was history making and that it was a defining and optimistic event in the 20th century and it changed humanities view of our place in the universe.
Indeed, those of us who were around in those days, can all remember what we were doing, where we were when we watched Neil take that one small step and although Apollo was a NASA undertaking by the US, it enthralled the whole world. It captured everyone’s imagination. The world stopped to watch those grainy, black and white images coming from the moon as we saw and you could just see in those people from New York, Central Park how uplifted they were by the whole event. Everyone was utterly spellbound throughout the world but that was another time and another generation, and as a result, I think few today may realise what we’ve been talking about, that those historic images came from an Australian Tracking Station at Honeysuckle Creek.
This country was in the critical path as it provided communication links, as we’ve heard, when those other NASA facilities, being on the other side of the earth, were facing away from the moon. Were it not for the dedicated work of the tracking teams here in Australia, NASA access to all that important telemetry stream and reporting vehicle status would have been restricted to just a few hours a day. As a result, the entire mission sequence and timing of critical events, such as undocking, decent initiation and actual touchdown, would have all had to have been changed. And at the very best, Neil and Buzz would not have been able to start working on the surface when they did.
I was a student when Apollo landed, at the University, and I remember one of the ABC current affairs programs did a piece on the Australian contribution and the importance of that contribution. And I remember, as a young engineering student, feeling a sense of incredible pride, that this nation had played a role, such an important role, placing it firmly in the critical path to the mission’s success. And I’m sure many others shared that view and that sense of pride. To all of you who were directly involved in that effort, here on stage and in the audience, we must offer our profound thanks for your skills and your professionalism. And I have to say that I’m a little jealous of you all.
It must have been an unbelievable time to be part of that history in the making and it certainly helped inspire people like me, to pursue a career in space. But mostly my thanks and our thanks to you, for lifting the international profile of this nation, and lifting our collective spirits, by making us all contributors to that wonderful and historic event. You gave us an incredible boost in national pride. Thank you so much, thank you.
STEPHANIE BULL: Just some closing comments from me, so firstly to thank our panellists and Andrew, for what has been a fantastic evening, thank you very much. I did want to let you know that we do have for sale, just around in front of the shop, Andrew’s book if you would like to get a copy and I would also like to take this opportunity to announce that the National Museum here, has now designated the tracking of Apollo as one of the National Museum’s defining moments in Australian history. It should come up on our screen, so go to our websites and see more information, please.
I’d also like to point out to you, of particular interest over here, towards my right, your left, the satellite tracking system console from the Orroral Valley Tracking Station, which is now part of the National Museum’s collection and please don’t forget to come back, as Andrew mentioned. Behind here and we’ve covered it up unfortunately tonight because of broadcast limitations, we have a display of amazing technical equipment that was used. Some of that equipment includes the handsets and transmitter panels, that track ball, that you saw in the videos earlier today that move the Honeysuckle dish, as well as lots of personal memorabilia from Honeysuckle trackers and of course, our moon rock, part of the Goodwill Rock, brought back by the astronauts of Apollo 17.
Additionally, throughout Science Week, through until mid-August, we will have a number of public lectures here at the museum, on the role of the Australian Tracking Stations. Those lectures titled, Tracking Apollo: How a little dish in Canberra broadcast the first steps on the moon, will be run over a few lecture times. Check our website for more details and lastly, thanks to you all for coming tonight. Thank you.
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Date published: 12 August 2019