Book remembers ACT’s ‘forgotten’ space station

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Author Philip Clark… “Very few people, even in the ACT, had heard of Orroral Valley.” Photo: Rod Henshaw

By ROD HENSHAW

WHEN we reflect on the ACT’s contribution to America’s many space missions, two names are at the forefront – Tidbinbilla and Honeysuckle Creek. There has only been sparse mention of a third space-tracking station that shouldered much of the burden of tracking countless US space missions over almost 20 years.

Orroral Valley has been described as “The Forgotten Station”, and to most people that’s the case. But not to Canberra’s Philip Clark, who devoted a significant slice of his life to working at Orroral. Now in his late 70s, Philip is determined that the underrated facility should take its rightful place in Australian space-tracking history.

The antenna Orroral used to track Apollo/Soyuz and the first space shuttle.

He recently published a book, “The Final Orbit”, named in honour of the last manned Apollo flight in 1975, conducted jointly by the US and the (then) USSR.

“Everybody has heard of Honeysuckle Creek and the man on the moon; it got marvellous publicity. And most people had heard about the deep space network at Tidbinbilla,” Philip Clark says.

“Very few people have heard of the Space Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN), (comprising) 14 stations around the world – later reduced to about 10. Orroral Valley was part of that work in the ACT.

“But again, very few people, even in the ACT, had heard of Orroral Valley.”

While Tidbinbilla and Honeysuckle Creek are relatively close to Canberra, Orroral Valley is nestled about 60 kilometres further south.

“It was a very big station,” Philip explains.

“It had up to about 13 antennas for tracking spacecraft. It could track up to seven spacecraft at once… bigger that Tidbinbilla and Honeysuckle Creek put together.”

“Sometimes it would track between 30 and occasionally up to as many as 100 tracks a day, every day, 24 hours a day.”

Philip Clark pictured in 1984 operating the digital processing console.

At its peak, Orroral Valley had a staff of more than 200, working four shifts over a 24-hour day.

“They travelled backward and forward in a fleet of motor cars, to the terror of residents,” says Clark.

Judging by his recollections of those commutes, they weren’t for the faint-hearted. And for much of the journey, it was dirt road after leaving the Monaro Highway.

Philip lived in Queanbeyan at the time and confesses that he was able to complete the 55-kilometre trek in just 35 minutes. “And I wasn’t the fastest,” he says.

Philip Clark’s tenure at Orroral Valley stretched from 1966, shortly after the station opened, to the end of its life in the mid ’80s.

“The Final Orbit” comprehensively chronicles an era of space exploration and the many challenges faced jointly by NASA and its Orroral Valley associate. Little else has been done to preserve the station’s largely neglected history.

Among his fondest memories is the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia in April, 1981. Philip was at the operations console when the astronauts broke protocol by playing a snippet of Slim Dusty’s “Waltzing Matilda” as they passed overhead.

Philip treasures an authentically distorted recording of that historical event, knowing he was probably the first person on earth to hear it, albeit by just a few seconds.

So why don’t we know more about Orroral Valley and the important role it played during its two decades of existence? And why is it “The Forgotten Station”?

While Orroral Valley achieved so much in that time, it seems it wasn’t enough to grab media attention.

Or in Philip Clark’s words: “It didn’t do anything glamorous. It just did all the work.”

“The Final Orbit”, published by Dreamstone Publishing.

 

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