More than 600 million people tuned in to watch the first footage of a human walking on the moon’s surface. Getting that footage from space to screens was a momentous feat.
This time 50 years ago, at about 1pm AEST on 21 July 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong descended from Lunar Module Eagle and set the first shoe print on the moon’s surface.
The Apollo 11 moon landing was a pivotal moment in humankind’s mission to explore the final frontier. The fact it was televised live on screens around the world meant every person could bear witness to this mammoth feat of human ingenuity.
Few viewers would have realised the footage they were watching had travelled the 384,000 km from the moon to their TV sets via the rural New South Wales town of Parkes.
Although the first televised moon landing and walk lasted only a few hours, months of preparation had gone in to making sure everything ran as smoothly as possible.
From space to screen
One of those people working hard behind the scenes was David Cooke. At the time, he worked as a radio receiver engineer at the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope — aka ‘The Dish’ — and was part of the team receiving the Apollo 11 transmission.
Now in his 80s, Cooke remembers that he wasn’t particularly nervous about this responsibility, but everyone involved was aware of the important role they played.
“We all knew this was a unique program that had never happened before, and we were all conscious of making sure that whatever job we had to do — whether it was the receivers or the electric power source or whatever it was — we did that properly,” he told create.
“We didn’t want to be known as the person who had failed to do their job and brought the project down.”
Prior to the moon landing, the Parkes team ran test after test to make sure the transmission would run smoothly. Everything, from the feedhorns (both of which were designed by CSIRO engineer Dr Bruce Thomas) to the recording equipment was checked. In addition, Parkes had two new receivers installed: one at its focus position and a second, less sensitive receiver a short distance away, which gave it a view just below the main receiver.
Parkes radio telescope director John Bolton made sure every possible opportunity for error was accounted for.
“For example, if the power went out, we had a team of people trained to turn the telescope on its axis by hand with big cranks. We also used diesel generators for the power,” Cooke said.
But despite their best efforts, not everything could be planned. As luck would have it, the wind picked up the day of the transmission and a storm put the project in jeopardy.
“The only thing Bolton said we really have against us was the weather, and that was the thing that nearly brought us down,” Cooke said.
To capture the feed coming from the lunar module, a unified S-band communication system with a carrier frequency of 2282.5 MHz, the Parkes telescope had to be pointed down to its 30-degree elevation limit.
At this point, Cooke said the wind “really gusted up hard” to more than 100 km/hr, threatening to compromise the broadcast and testing the safety limits of the dish. Under normal operational circumstances, Cooke said they would have returned the telescope back to centre for safety.
But even with the wind alarm ringing and the 1000-tonne telescope straining overhead, Bolton decided to risk it and kept the telescope pointed almost horizontal, ready to capture the feed coming from the moon as it rose over the horizon. Everything held, and once the signal appeared, the Parkes team tracked it, playing a pivotal role in making sure the footage came through clear.
From second to first
Australia’s role in transmitting the first moon landing is a source of national pride, and it’s especially memorable for those working at Parkes the night of the event. But the Parkes radio telescope wasn’t NASA’s first choice.
Another radio telescope about 200 km away near Canberra — Honeysuckle Creek — was designated as the main feed for the live broadcast. The first moments of the live broadcast, including Armstrong’s “one small step” speech, came from this facility. But about eight minutes into the broadcast, NASA diverted to Parkes for its superior image quality.
Parkes had some advantages over Honeysuckle: it was the largest moving dish in the Southern Hemisphere; and its receivers were better.
“For the rest of that [two-and-a-half hour] broadcast, the world saw pictures from Parkes,” Cooke said.
As Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface and uttered those famous 11 words, Cooke recalled that he was simply “amazed” at what he was watching.
“When we saw that Armstrong had stepped down on the moon, we must have all given a big cheer,” he said.
However, it wasn’t until Cooke went to take a photo of the Parkes telescope after the broadcast that the full weight of what they had accomplished settled on him.
“It was only then that I realised the magnitude of what really happened, that all these people working together — including us — had made it possible to put three men up there and two of them on the surface of the moon,” Cooke said.
“Thinking back, it is quite amazing to think that humankind had embarked on this program. It’s quite extraordinary that it was possible to get all those people to cooperate and to make it possible.”
The next ‘moonshot’
The Parkes radio telescope continues to play an important role in spacecraft tracking and communications — it has even been named by Engineering Heritage Australia as one of the top 100 Australian engineering achievements in its Wonders Never Cease book.
Sarah Pearce, the Deputy Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, which oversees Australia’s radio telescopes and the organisation’s work in space, said the country continues to play a pivotal role in space exploration.
The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, provides tracking services for dozens of missions across the solar system, including Voyager 2 in interstellar space. On the west coast, the New Norcia tracking facility near Perth helps with European Space Agency activities.
And an up-and-coming project is the Square Kilometre Array, also in WA, which shares duties with a sister station in South Africa and will serve as the next generation of radio telescopes.
Pearce said that with the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk upon us, it’s the perfect time to reflect on all that Australia has contributed to space exploration, as well as what’s on the horizon.
“While the benefits of the Apollo program are many, its main legacy may have been to inspire a generation of young people to enter careers in science, engineering, technology and maths, which has led to the development of new industries, jobs and so much of the technology we take for granted in our daily lives,” she told create.
While Australia will most likely never have a budget the size of NASA’s, Pearce said it can still contribute to space exploration efforts by sharing its expertise in remote operations, as well as its strategic location.
This is especially true as the barriers to entry for space lower thanks to cheaper rocket launches and miniaturised technology.
“We have real expertise in areas that we haven’t yet applied to space, such as medical science, crop technologies and advanced materials,” Pearce said.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Australia finds its role.”