Australia’s role in the TV transmission of the Moon Landing 1969

Parkes radio telescope i 2012 (Chris H)

In these days, when “the whole world” celebrates the 50 years anniversary of the moon landing, we will take the opportunity to tell the dramatic story of when the TV transmission almost failed.

In the beginning there was not going to be a TV transmission. The most important thing of all was of course the communication between Apollo 11 and NASA.

Several tracking stations

As we know, the earth rotates around its own axis. NASA therefore had to establish several receiving stations to be able to follow the space shuttle uninterrupted all the way. A main station was established in the United States, near Goldstone, in California, one near Madrid in Spain and one in Australia, near the capital Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Australia was leading

Australia was the world leader in the field of radio astronomy in the 1950s-60s. The country had played an important role in the founding and development of this field after the Second World War. A new and important knowledge of radio receivers and antennas was developed, and also the knowledge of how to be able to track a spacecraft. Parkes radio telescope (CSIRO), which opened in 1961, was then the most advanced and sensitive in the world and NASA had invested a lot here.

TV transmission

When the decision for a TV transmission was made, Parkes role became important. The receiver disc was huge and ideal for receiving weak signals sent 238 900 miles away, all the way from the moon, but Parkes was just a receiver station. It therefore became a support station for another tracking station in Honeysuckle Creek outside Sydney, NSW. This important station could send the signals out. Two other support stations were also established, one in Tidbinbilla (ACT) and one in Carnarvon, Western Australia (WA).

Dramatic hours

Armstrong decided to go out on the moon’s surface surprisingly early in the morning of Monday the 21 of July, 1969 (Australian time). This was 5 hours before the moon appeared over Australia. It would have been disastrous for the TV transmission!

The hours passed, however, because it turned out that the technical process of donning the space suits were more difficult than expected. The astronauts also had difficulty depressurizing the cabin.

Meanwhile, the moon came closer and closer to the Australian continent. The satellite discs in Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek were put in a position where they would catch the first glimpse of the moon and start broadcasting.

The weather!

July is a winter month in Australia and the weather is not always predictable. To get the first sighting of the moon over the horizon the satellite disc in Parkes was set in a position like a sail and against this came a wind gust of almost 70 miles per hour! The alarm went off every time the heavy 1000 ton installation rumbled and swayed in the gusts.

As the moon came into the line of sight, the wind stopped for a moment and the reception conditions in both Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek became perfect. Australia could send Armstrong’s “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” to the world.

After about 2.5 hours from when the door of the spacecraft opened up the crew had completed their tasks. The door closed again and the transmission ended. The weather was disastrous in Parkes the whole time. Towards the end there was even a hail storm! Parkes satellite, however, managed to hold on and received strong signals all the time.

It was a success for NASA. Millions saw the TV transmission and the world cheered the first moon landing.