Righting the Honeysuckle Creek record

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Yesterday columnist NICHOLE OVERALL looks back at what was really happening at Honeysuckle Creek when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

At the foot of Deadman’s Hill, in the deep south of the ACT, a 26-metre antenna beamed footage from hundreds of thousands of kilometres in space, enabling it to be seen around this globe. Photo: NASA

“As Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, our only link was a satellite dish in rural Australia with a few bugs (and a few hundred sheep).”

– “The Dish”, 2000

ALMOST everyone’s a bit “lunaticus” at the minute that is, “moonstruck”. 

Nichole Overall.

In case it somehow escaped your orbit, July 20/21 marked the 50th anniversary of the history-altering moment when Neil Armstrong took one small step into a desolate landscape where man is the alien. 

As he did, at the foot of the ominously-named Deadman’s Hill, in the deep south of the ACT, a 26m (85ft) antenna beamed footage from hundreds of thousands of kilometres in space, enabling it to be seen around this globe. 

Although the part played by a similar piece of technology in a central-west NSW paddock gets most of the attention, the now-abandoned tracking station at the geographic heart of the ACT, Honeysuckle Creek (HSK), deserves its share of the limelight.

According to Mike Dinn, deputy director of the Canberra facility when the “Eagle” landed, it’s only fair the record is righted more broadly. 

“That movie, ‘The Dish’, while 60 per cent to 70 per cent correct, does give a false impression of what happened,” he says. 

“I was there, one of only a handful left [from HSK], and I know what happened. There’s more to it than what much of the Parkes-centric reporting suggests.” 

When a marshmallowy, bulbous-headed spaceman climbed down a ladder before gingerly stepping where none had before, uttering what would become perhaps the most well known phrase ever, the world watched on with collectively-held breath. Those eminently recognisable first minutes, seen by an estimated fifth of this planet’s population (with the exception of Russia and China), came from HSK. 

Only as Commander Armstrong ventured further into the Sea of Tranquility – one of numerous pockmarks that define the lunar surface and named because early astronomers mistook the dark patches for water – did the broadcast switch to images received by Parkes, due to their higher quality.

HSK continued to communicate with and oversee the telemetry (data) of the astronauts and their craft.

“It was all a great team effort,” says Mike. 

“An array of people and places all doing their job and, as part of that, bringing it to a worldwide audience.”

A couple of books have helped bolster the ACT station’s reputation, including a 2018 one by politician-turned-author, Andrew Tink. And watching over and communicating with Apollo 11 wasn’t its only major contribution. 

Set just inside the Namadgi National Park, sheltered by the Brindabellas, from 1967, HSK tracked and supported manned space flights as part of the US Apollo program.

Along with other Australian stations, it provided a  “lifeline to the moon” during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission – its 50th anniversary in April next year. 

After the explosion of an onboard oxygen tank, Houston received the now famous relay that there was a problem. As the drama unfolded, HSK staff continued to track the near-disabled spacecraft and, in the face of weak signals, acquire critical data.

The US government gave official thanks for the assistance in “saving the lives of our astronauts”. HSK was among the few singled out.

As big a deal as all this was, the capital can make other claims to fame in the exploration of that most remote of frontiers. 

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, in a south-west valley between the Murrumbidgee and Paddys Rivers, was built four years before the moon landing. During that event, it maintained communications with Michael Collins in the orbiting command module as he anxiously awaited the return of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 

While modelled on the earlier Parkes design, in 1987 Tidbinbilla’s 64m (210ft) antenna was extended by six metres, making it the largest movable dish in the southern hemisphere.

The last-remaining NASA tracking station of seven in Australia, the complex also became home to HSK’s telescope following its 1981 decommissioning. It continued to be used to monitor spacecraft closer to earth until retired in 2009. The following year, the HSK dish was declared an Historical Aerospace Site by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 

The Orroral Valley Tracking Station, operational in late 1965, was deeper south – and even more remote.

Employing a 26-metre antenna along with a variety of smaller ones, its job was to track closer-range, earth-orbiting satellites. This included Australia’s first in 1967. Within a decade, it was the largest such station (staff-wise) outside the US.

Having provided support for the first Space Shuttle missions, in 1985 it was removed to the Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory in Tasmania. 

As for the much older Mt Stromlo (1911), it looked to the heavens rather than tracked man-made objects in them.

Its initial specialisation was solar and atmospheric observations. After World War II the focus turned to some of the great unknowns: “the structure and evolution of planets, stars and galaxies, the origin and development of the Universe, and the physics of the tenuous material between.” 

With the destruction of its telescopes in the 2003 Canberra firestorm, its capabilities are gradually being regenerated.

Also reduced to a shadow of its former glory, Orroral was razed to concrete footings in 1992. So too, Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station. The name of the thoroughfare leading to its former site – Apollo Road – is one of the few remnants to reveal the significance of the isolated destination at its end.

The sense of aloneness that envelopes you when visiting though, may well be the most fitting emulation of that planetary body with which it was so involved. 

And there’s always that very special footage, for which mankind will be forever grateful.

If ever there’s a chance to pick up alien signals, it’ll likely come from another space observatory in Canberra’s backyard – and that’s a column to keep an eye out for in next week’s edition. 

For more of the interview with Mike Dinn and author Andrew Tink, see anoverallview.wixsite.com/blog.

 

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Nichole Overall
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist, author and social historian.

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