Apollo 11 moon landing - just don't believe the movie

 smh.com.au  07/14/2019 08:00:00 

But there was no doubting where the public's imagination was focused. Conversation as the week progressed was increasingly occupied by the men hurtling towards the moon. Fashion models from an agency in Sydney displayed outfits suitable for 'Moonwear' (possibly a bit scant for the Sea of Tranquility where overnight temperatures can dip to minus 173 C).


Even Column Eight (on the front page in those days) got in on the act: If you are feeling slightly bewildered by all this moon science and computerisation, take heart. Says an American psychology professor: "The human brain is a honey of a computer." That's a comfort then.

The Herald's front page picture story had this: 'The Parkes radio-telescope, Australia's major contribution to the Apollo moon shot, is all set to receive television pictures of man's first steps on the moon. The links with the Mission Control Centre at Houston, Texas, will be tested yet again tomorrow.'

But that wasn't quite the way it turned out. If your knowledge of the landing is based on watching the 2001 film The Dish (Sam Neill) then you will need to revise your history.

Parkes certainly did relay images of Neil Armstrong as he left the lunar module and prepared to take one "small step". But the first images relayed in a live feed to about 60 million viewers for the first eight minutes, were sent by the lesser-known Honeysuckle Creek tracking station, some half an hour south of Canberra. It doesn't merit much of a mention in the movie.

Honeysuckle Creek in Namadgi National Park is at the end of a remote winding track called Apollo Road. Despite being at the forefront of interplanetary communications half a century ago, today there's no mobile phone cover to contact the NRMA, a modest 30 kilometres away in Canberra.

Models parade moon fashions in the Sydney CBD on July 14, 1969, in the lead-up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Models parade moon fashions in the Sydney CBD on July 14, 1969, in the lead-up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing.Credit:SMH

When you do get there, there's not much left to see. The Honeysuckle dish (not as big as Parkes) has been moved and all that is left of the office buildings that housed banks of electronic equipment are the concrete foundations upon which they once stood.

So why use a smaller dish than big brother at Parkes? The reason was that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin chose not to have the planned sleep in before starting the moon walk. That meant the walk happened earlier with the moon too low on the horizon for Parkes to dip its giant dish low enough to get the images.

On Saturday the ACT government will celebrate the crucial role Honeysuckle Creek played with the unveiling of a commemorative artworks displaying those historic words "One small step..." US Ambassador to Australia Arthur B Culvahouse Jr and Australian born NASA astronaut Dr Andrew Thomas will be there.

So will former employees of the tracking station, including Michael Dinn who was deputy director at the time and now in his 80s.

 Mike Dinn, former deputy director at Honeysuckle Creek with the dish now relocated to Tidbinbilla.

Mike Dinn, former deputy director at Honeysuckle Creek with the dish now relocated to Tidbinbilla.Credit:Karleen Minney

His Canberra living room is a celebration of all things lunar. The small round grey rug in front of the television is a map of the moon. All work surfaces are covered by anniversary invites, brochures, books and more. There's a commemoration collector's set of coins issued by the Royal Australian Mint. There's Mike in the background on the one dollar coin.

Does it bother him that Parkes got the kudos? "Sort of ... yes and no. They've had the wrong information up at the Parkes telescope for 20 years. I was visiting there regularly and I didn't bother making an issue of it. I've got a webpage called 'The Truth about The Dish'. That summarises the inaccuracies but I go out of my way, number one, to say that movie was a hell of a lot better than nothing.

"Number two, it's an entertaining movie. Three, it is about 70 or 80 per cent accurate, it's just inaccurate in the one regard, which is major from my point of view, namely that television on the first day to the world was taken from the Honeysuckle dish not from Parkes.

"As it was, it was only eight minutes later that the moon moved into the view of the Parkes dish, the signal was appreciably better and both our signals were going into Sydney where the selection was made to on-send to Houston. The man in Sydney called Houston: "I've got a good picture from Parkes, do you want it?" And the man at Houston said: "Yes, that's the best picture yet."

David Cooke radio receiver engineer monitoring the signal at Parkes at the time said they had two beams, a standby beam and a main beam. "We first of all picked it up on the standby beam," he said.

David Cooke, radio engineer at Parkes Observatory.

David Cooke, radio engineer at Parkes Observatory.Credit:John M Sarkissian

"Afterwards when we had finished the track, I went outside, I had a camera and I took a picture, I looked up and saw the moon and I thought that's pretty amazing. There's three people up there and we helped put them there. Let's hope we get them back."

Do you have a Sydney story of watching man walk in the moon? If so, we'd like to hear from you. tbarlass@smh.com.au

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