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Thursday 20 August 2015

2015: A Space Odyssey - Into Empty and Spooky Spaces

The Moon is still up there, and the Earth is still here. Still here, too, are the memories, remarkably fresh from more than 46 years ago, of standing beside a teletype machine in an evening newspaper wireroom in New Zealand, as it began to clack out the words, "Houston, Texas, Today (Reuters): ''''Flash'''' Eagle lands safely on Moon." That was on the dot of 8.17 on the morning of Monday, July 21, 1969.
The words I wrote on an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter
to go with a cutout of that first message. Unfortunately,
the Linotype operator who set my caption left an 's' off seconds.
Ah well, such is life.
While we waited on tenterhooks for another flash message from Houston, to confirm that Neil Armstrong had successfully descended on to the Moon's surface, we held back going to press for more than 6½ hours, until 3pm, then came out with the day's only edition. Less than four minutes after "stone" hands had been given the all-clear to lock up the broadsheet forme chases and roll them out to the press hall, the newspapers were coming off the reel-fed flatbed Cossar presses. Even with today's technology, it would be impossible to start presses rolling any quicker with such an extensive coverage than we did back in 1969:
What has changed is visual transmission. There were no satellite earth stations in New Zealand at that time. Forty minutes of videotape of Armstrong's Moonwalk, the first 8½ minutes of which had been received at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station outside Canberra, starting at 12.56pm Eastern Australian time and ending at 1.36pm, was rushed by car from the Australian Broadcasting Commission's ABN-2 studios at Gore Hill in Sydney to the Kingsford Smith airport at Mascot and flown to Rongotai airport in Wellington on a Royal Australian Air Force English Electric Canberra bomber. The 2½ hour flight left Sydney within 39 minutes, at 2.15pm Eastern Australian time (4.15 NZ time), and arrived in New Zealand at 6.45pm New Zealand time. The videotape was then taken by car to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation's WNTV1 (Channel 1) studio in Mount Kaukau in Wellington and within 45 minutes was aired throughout New Zealand, at 7.30pm. An outside broadcast unit beamed the footage across Cook Strait to the South Island, and that's how I came to finally see it, 4½ hours after the event. Not to worry, though, I'd read about it all in the Greymouth Evening Star at 3pm!
Honeysuckle Creek Space Tracking Station.
Once were space tracking station workers: Honeysuckle Creek's support staff.
What's not there any longer is the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, the facility which received those first 8½ minutes of footage of Armstrong walking on the Moon. And to me, that seems an awful shame. Surely it should have been considered a site of huge historical significance. But this is what it looked like when I visited it yesterday (looking back down from where the dish once stood):
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. Less than two years later, on March 6, 1963, the Australian and United States governments jointly announced a deal to construct three US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) deep-space tracking stations just outside Canberra, in what was then termed the Tidbinbilla Valley.
Working on teletype machines, Honeysuckle Creek.
These stations would be at Tidbinbilla itself, right on the edge of the national capital (separated by the Murrumbidgee River), at Honeysuckle Creek and at Orroral Valley. All that remains of the three stations is what is now called the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, centred at TidbinbillaTidbinbilla is Aboriginal in origin and is derived from the word Jedbinbilla - "a place where boys become men" (that is, are circumcised).
Tidbinbilla as it is today.
I toured the Tidbinbilla complex 11 years ago, when I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing the late Sally Kristen Ride (1951-2012), the physicist and astronaut who in 1983 became the first American woman in space (she remains the youngest American astronaut to have travelled to space, having done so at the age of 32). Tidbinbilla, completed in 1965, is nowadays part of the Deep Space Network run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is the only NASA tracking station still in operation in Australia. Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) manages most of NASA's activities in this country.
Sally Ride in space.
All three of these deep-space tracking station sites are less than 40 minutes from my front door. Yet Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley remained to me hidden secrets - that is, until yesterday.
 Above, Orroral Valley as it was; below, as it is now:
Orroral Valley was completed in May 1965. It supported Earth-orbiting satellites, as part of NASA's Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN). It also supported the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 and the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. It was home to a 85-feet high by 120-feet wide antenna, erected by Collins Radio under contract to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, and many smaller VHF and microwave frequency antennas. The main requirement of the station, as distinct from the long-range communication tasks of Tidbinbilla and Honeysuckle Creek, was to be able to quickly switch from supporting one satellite to another. It was closed in 1985. Orroral appears to have been derived from Urongal, an Aboriginal word meaning "tomorrow", but it was not to have a tomorrow of its own.
Some gratitude! The place has been levelled.
Honeysuckle Creek was completed in 1967 and was built primarily to support the Apollo Moon missions, mainly communications with the Apollo Command Module. It was home to the antenna which received and relayed to the world the first historic television images of Armstrong setting foot on the Moon.
At least in the initial 8½ minutes of Neil Armstrong's descent from the lunar module and his walk on the Moon, Honeysuckle Creek was able to receive and send (to Sydney and through Sydney to Houston) far clearer images than the Lyndon B.Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. However, nearby Parkes in New South Wales was then able to provide the better images.
Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla also had voice and telemetry contact with the lunar and command modules. After the Apollo Moon missions ended in 1972, Honeysuckle Creek began supporting regular Skylab passes, the Apollo scientific stations left on the Moon by astronauts, and assisting the Deep Space Network with interplanetary tracking commitments, in support of the Viking and Voyager projects.
Honeysuckle Creek used Sperry Rand UNIVAC equipment.
(Skylab's re-entry in July 1979 was aimed at a spot 810 miles south-east of Cape Town, South Africa, but the station did not burn up as fast as NASA had expected, and debris landed south-east of Perth, Western Australia. The debris was found between Esperance and Rawlinna. The Shire of Esperance facetiously fined NASA $400 for littering, a fine which remained unpaid for 30 years. Analysis showed the station had not disintegrated until 10 miles above the Earth, much lower than expected.)
Honeysuckle Creek was closed in 1981 and its 85-foot antenna was moved to Tidbinbilla.
I found the journey through the abandoned Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley sites more than a little spooky. Each place was overlooked by "Hanging Rock" outcrops (no place for a picnic); at Honeysuckle Creek there was an 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith-type boulder and at Orraral Valley what I could only imagine - with a fancy heightened by the atmosphere - as a surviving representation of the mythological Yggdrasil:
Overhead a helicopter kept buzzing about, as if keeping track of our movements over these ghostly grounds. At Orroral Valley there were hundreds of eastern grey kangaroos grazing, but there were also dozens of kangaroos corpses, with no apparent sign of the reason for their death - food and water seemed plentiful. 
A female kangaroo with a joey in her pouch
Ironically, while the historically significant space tracking station sites had been levelled, with little left to remind us of their existence, at Orroral Valley there was within walking distance much more clear evidence of previous human habitation on this otherwise barren landscape.
The restored Orroral Homestead. Below is a shot taken from the old homestead with the antenna in the background:
Tools hang in one room of the old homestead, above, and below, a page from the Queanbeyan Observer. Newspapers were used to line the walls of these old properties. The Observer merged with the Queanbeyan Age in 1915.
 Below, this shearing shed doubled as a dance hall:
 Below, the wool sorting bench inside the shearing shed:
 What remains of the machinery used to drive the shears:
Orroral Valley
Honeysuckle Creek in its prime
 Below: "Their ghosts may be heard as you pass by ..."


Ted said...

Fantastic memories! It's fascinating to see glimpses of what was great in the ruins of what is now. The Space Age - I kinda wish I'd been old enough to really enjoy it when it happened. In the very early 70's I can remember schools spent a lot of time teaching what was essentially science fiction in an attempt to ready us kids for the theoretical plentiful careers aboard space colonies. Seems like that optimism died after Vietnam really got going.

Richard P said...

I was very excited about the moon launches when I was a kid. Still would be, if they were happening!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a fascinating post. That is a wonderful collection of photos - funny how the old homestead and shearing shed outlasted the tracking station and antenna.

Bill M said...

I remember most of the launches and watching the moon many times wondering about the astronauts orbiting it and finally landing there. Now I live near Cape Canaveral and there are no more moon launches. I really do hope we go back and even beyond. We watched many shuttle flights from our front yard. Even from a distance a launch is spectacular.

Great post Robert. I really like that old Tektronix 500 series (503 maybe?) oscilloscope. I used many of them from those models on to the present really fancy digital ones. Too bad those historic buildings were removed.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a Honeysuckle Creek Space Museum would have been nice!