Many still remain unaware of the significant role played by Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra, in the telecast of man’s first steps on the moon. The NSW town of Parkes has received most attention because its dish beamed remaining images of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk to the world, or greater part of it. But it was Honeysuckle Creek that beamed those first steps. When Armstrong put his foot on the ladder, it was from Honeysuckle, with its signal, that showed the world exactly what he was doing. Andrew Tink, historian and author, most recently, of Honeysuckle Creek – The Story of Tom Reid, a Little Dish and Neil Armstrong’s First Step addressed The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 27 November 2018 to explain how this happened.
AUSTRALIA’S PART IN MAN’S FIRST WALK ON THE MOON
Like everyone else over 60, I can remember exactly where I was at 12.56 pm on 21 July 1969: in Sydney Grammar’s science auditorium, watching live television of Neil Armstrong taking his first step onto the Moon, a quarter of a million miles away.
Towards the end of 1972, I began dating a fellow ANU arts/law student, Marg Reid. Her dad, Tom, was the director of the Tidbinbilla deep space tracking station just outside Canberra. But three years earlier, when Armstrong had taken his first step, Tom Reid had been in charge of the Apollo tracking station at nearby Honeysuckle Creek.
Although I was interested in what Tom did, he would never talk about his work, muttering something about “team effort”, before changing the subject to rugby or soccer. However, in an obscure corner of the Reids’ living room was a NASA award. Dated 20 October 1969, it was addressed to “Thomas Reid Manned Space Flight Station Director” and it read in part:
For exceptional support to the success of the Apollo Program. His leadership, professional skill and personal dedication to the management and operation of the Manned Space Flight Network contributed significantly to the Apollo missions and greatly enhanced man’s capabilities to explore the vastness of extra-terrestrial space.
His leadership, professional skill and personal dedication to the management and operation of the Manned Space Flight Network contributed significantly to the Apollo missions
Sometime during 2002, I went to see the film The Dish. Watching the opening scenes, with the dish master Cliff Buxton played by Sam Neill walking towards the Parkes radio telescope, I remember thinking, “this isn’t right: wrong place, wrong person”. And the film hardly mentioned Honeysuckle Creek at all.
With the dish master Cliff Buxton played by Sam Neill walking towards the Parkes radio telescope, I remember thinking, “this isn’t right: wrong place, wrong person”.
A few months later, Marg Reid and I crossed paths at a luncheon and I asked about her father’s reaction to The Dish. “Dad’s heard that it contains major factual errors and refuses to watch it,” she said. “He should correct them,” I replied. “You know Dad,” Marg responded, “He won’t talk about his work.” And there the matter rested.
However, in 2016 I decided to research and write up Honeysuckle’s role in the Apollo 11 Moon landing and slowly began to piece together the real story from the small number of Honeysuckle space trackers who were still able to talk about what really happened.
For the Apollo Moon missions, NASA developed three specialised tracking stations. These were spaced equidistantly around the globe so that as the Earth rotated on its axis once every 24 hours, at least one of them would be able to communicate with Apollo astronauts, except when they were on the Moon’s far side.
Located at Goldstone in California, near Madrid in Spain and at Honeysuckle Creek south of Canberra, these stations could send and receive signals over more than 250,000 miles. On what amounted to giant electromagnetic umbilical cords, Houston’s Mission Control could talk with astronauts on the Moon, receive readouts relating to their heart beats, send commands to their spacecraft and read their fuel levels, and determine exactly where the astronauts were.
Located at Goldstone in California, near Madrid in Spain and at Honeysuckle Creek south of Canberra, these stations could send and receive signals over more than 250,000 miles.
Without the connections provided by these stations, Houston would have been deaf, dumb and blind to the Apollo astronauts in space, just as those astronauts would have been rendered completely invisible to their Earth-bound controllers.
No Apollo launch could begin unless all three stations were “Green Light” ready. They were as important as the massive Saturn V rocket which blasted the astronauts into space. While most of the key positions at Goldstone and Madrid were held by Americans, no American accent could be heard at Honeysuckle because the Australian Government insisted it be manned by Australian citizens and permanent residents.
No American accent could be heard at Honeysuckle because the Australian Government insisted it be manned by Australian citizens and permanent residents.
To bring the Apollo tracking stations up to speed, NASA conducted a series of gruelling simulations where every conceivable crisis scenario was thrown at the space trackers. But Honeysuckle’s first director was not up to the job. And at the end of one particularly challenging simulation, NASA’s team leader told the Honeysuckle trackers: ‘you guys are a bunch of shit’.
Honeysuckle’s director was therefore replaced by Tom Reid, a brilliant Glasgow-born electrical engineer who had cut his teeth in the British and Australian navies, and as a space tracker at Woomera and Orroral Valley. A no-nonsense, can-do type of guy, who realised that whip-smart navy technicians often made better space trackers than university educated engineers, Reid cut a swathe through Honeysuckle’s personnel, raising a few NASA eyebrows along the way. Within months, Honeysuckle went from being the worst performing Apollo station to the best.
The question of whether to attempt the live televising of Man’s first step onto the Moon had been debated within NASA for years and it wasn’t until just a few weeks before the Apollo 11 launch that it was given the go ahead. Because of the Lunar Module’s limited space, the remotely triggered TV camera had to be mounted upside down. And in each of the Apollo tracking stations, special reversing switches were installed to flip the TV images right side up.
Because of the Lunar Module’s limited space, the remotely triggered TV camera had to be mounted upside down. And in each of the Apollo tracking stations, special reversing switches were installed to flip the TV images right side up.
Apollo 11’s flight plan had designated Honeysuckle Creek as the prime station for the astronauts’ Moon walk, with Parkes’s radio telescope playing a supporting role. With its 210-foot diameter dish, Parkes would provide better TV images than Honeysuckle’s 85-foot dish. But after the astronauts’ lunar landing, they were given permission to undertake their Moon walk some hours earlier than planned. Goldstone was therefore designated as the prime station for lunar TV.
As Neil Armstrong made his way down the Lunar Module’s ladder, the Goldstone technician mucked up his reversing switch. And with the Moon having not yet risen over the Parkes main dish, it was the TV images of Armstrong stepping onto the Moon generated by Honeysuckle’s much smaller dish which were seen by a record world wide TV audience of 600 million people. But for Honeysuckle, there would have been no live television of Neil Armstrong saying: ‘that’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind’.
It was the TV images of Armstrong stepping onto the Moon generated by Honeysuckle’s much smaller dish which were seen by a record world wide TV audience of 600 million people.
Speaking twenty years later about his team’s extraordinary achievement, Tom Reid said: ‘it hadn’t been planned that way. But that’s the way it was. And God damn it, we were ready!’