For more than 60 years, Australia has played a vital role in space tracking owing to its geographic location and its technical know-how.
A high point was reached at 12.56pm (AEST) on 21 July 1969 when the Apollo tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra, transmitted live television of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon to a world wide audience of 600 million (a record for the time).
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union entered a new phase in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first human-made object to orbit the earth. This triggered a ‘space race’ between the superpowers.
Australia’s geographic location made it ideal for tracking spacecraft in earth orbit, when travelling to and from the moon, and on voyages into deep space. In 1964 NASA decided to consolidate its key Australian space tracking stations at sites near Canberra. The first two, Tidbinbilla and Orroral Valley came online in 1965.
A third station commenced operations at Honeysuckle Creek in 1967 to track Project Apollo’s manned missions to the moon.
The Apollo tracking stations
NASA’s top priority was to be the first to land a man on the moon. To maximise its astronauts’ safety, three tracking stations were built. These were placed equidistantly around the earth, so that as it spun on its axis, at least one station would have contact with spacecraft on or near the moon.
The first station was built at Goldstone in California and the second near Madrid in Spain. In both, the key jobs were held by Americans. But at the third, Honeysuckle Creek, it was Australian Government policy for all positions to be filled by Australian citizens or permanent residents.
At each site, an 85-foot (26-metre) diameter tracking dish was erected. These dishes generated ultra-high frequency radio uplinks which carried remote commands to the spacecraft and voice from Mission Control.
They also received downlinks carrying the astronauts’ voices, data about such things as their heart rates and their spacecraft’s fuel levels, together with their location signals.
Without these special tracking stations, Mission Control in Houston, Texas, would have been effectively deaf, dumb and blind when the Apollo astronauts were near or on the moon.
For Apollo 11, Honeysuckle tracked the lunar module, Eagle, and its astronauts during their moon walk. In addition, it was the hub station for Tidbinbilla which maintained uplinks and downlinks with the command module, and for the Parkes radio telescope which provided extra receiving capacity for the Eagle’s downlinks.
The near-earth stages of an Apollo mission were covered by a tracking station at Carnarvon in Western Australia.
Armstrong’s first step
At 11.15am (AEST) on Monday 21 July 1969, the moon rose over the Honeysuckle Creek dish which was angled down to zero degrees.
Honeysuckle and Parkes were on the same longitude, but the moon would not rise over the Parkes dish until a little after 1pm because that dish could only be angled down to 30 degrees.
Although Apollo 11’s flight plan had scheduled Armstrong’s first step for around 4pm, Armstrong was given permission to advance this by some hours. And as he emerged from the Eagle sometime after 12.30pm, Goldstone and Honeysuckle had him in view.
On reaching the top of the ladder down to the lunar surface, Armstrong pulled on a lanyard and a small TV camera began remotely filming him from the Eagle’s stowage bay.
Because of severe space constraints, the camera had been mounted upside down. At each tracking station, a reversing switch was installed to flip its TV pictures the right way up.
At first, Mission Control broadcast Goldstone’s live TV feed. But Goldstone’s TV technician mucked up his reversing switch. However, Honeysuckle’s TV technician, Ed von Renouard, managed to get it right, so Mission Control switched to Honeysuckle..
A few seconds later, Honeysuckle’s video feed showed Armstrong stepping onto the moon and saying: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Honeysuckle’s TV signal continued going to air around the world for a further six minutes until Parkes’s 210-foot (64-metre) dish came online. Generally speaking, the bigger the dish, the better the picture, and so Parkes’s TV signal was chosen for the remainder of the moon walk.
The Australian movie, The Dish, made Parkes famous, but the first pictures from the Moon actually came from Honeysuckle Creek
If all you ever learned about the Apollo 11 mission was from the Australian movie The Dish, you would be sorely mistaken about what really happened when man landed on the Moon. The movie gave most of the credit to Parkes for the transmission, but footage of the first steps on the moon came from Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station
The story of Honeysuckle Creek
A worker at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station during Apollo 11 said the Parkes station was just one part of the overall story of how Australia helped transmit footage of the Moon landing.
“Parkes was complementary to the network, it wasn’t fundamental,” he said. “If we’d had no Parkes we could’ve still supported the mission, if you’d had no Honeysuckle, you wouldn’t have had a mission.”
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the landing, he pointed out that, unlike Honeysuckle, Parkes was not a tracking station and did not have a transmitter, meaning it could not process the data being sent back from the Moon.
“Parkes had a very important role and carried out very well the majority of the television during the [Moon walk]. But television of the first step came from Honeysuckle Creek.”
In fact, the first eight minutes and 50 seconds— which included Neil Armstrong famously climbing down the ladder and putting his feet on the Moon — broadcast to hundreds of millions of people watching around the world, came from the dish outside Canberra.
Far from drinking tea and celebrating with the Parkes mayor, another piece of creative license in the Working Dog Productions film was a visit from the Prime Minister of the day, John Gorton. But, so important was Honeysuckle Creek, that Mr Gorton decided to make a surprise visit there early on the big day.
Right place, right time, right angle
So why did Honeysuckle Creek end up playing such a pivotal role?
It really came down to Honeysuckle being in the right place at the right time with the Moon in the right position to be able to receive those signals.
At the time when Neil was coming down the ladder the Moon wasn’t high enough … so Parkes weren’t getting a clean signal from the Moon. Eventually, once the Moon was high enough for the larger, more powerful dish at Parkes to receive a signal, NASA broadcast those clearer pictures for another two hours.
So, while Parkes can claim the auspicious title of beaming the moon walk to the world, Honeysuckle is to thank for Armstrong’s first steps — and the famous words he uttered when man first set foot on the Moon.
To learn more about this historic event, come along to the City of Canada Bay Museum on Saturday, 5th February when Andrew Tink will be talking about his new book, “Honeysuckle Creek: the story of Tom Reid, a Little Dish and Neil Armstrong’s First Step”.
click to visit the Honeysuckle Creek: The story of Tom Reid, a Little Dish and Neil Armstrong’s First Step event page
As the mother of Tom Reid’s first two grandchildren, and having been part of his family for many years, I was extremely grateful to Andrew Tink for Tom’s biography, as it gave me great insight into Tom as a man, how truly astonishing his career was, and how indebted the world was to Tom for being able to witness that first moon walk!
It sometimes confounds my (lesser scientific!) brain as to how a person who contributed so significantly to world history has never truly been recognised, and how Australia has somehow settled for a caricturish distortion of the events portrayed in The Dish, rather than celebrate the astounding truth behind the real story.
At least Andrew Tink was able to give us that truth, for which my children and I are extremely grateful. Many thanks, Andrew!!