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The TV pictures of Neil Armstrong clambering down the ladder of the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module and taking the first steps by a human on the Moon’s surface are rightly iconic, though rather fuzzy. Most people seem to think that those images were received by the radio telescope at Parkes in New South Wales, largely because that was what was depicted in a popular Australian movie entitled ‘The Dish’. The truth, however, is that those pictures were grainy in part because they were actually received using a rather smaller antenna, located at a tracking station close to Canberra that few people have heard about: Honeysuckle Creek.
Whenever a movie appears on TV and it starts with a statement that it is “Based on a True Story”, I switch it off (or at least leave the room, so as to avoid arguments). The reason is very simple: if one watches such a thing, then most often one will remember the scenes, and what is said, and forget that they are actually the product of a scriptwriter, a director, and many other people involved in the movie’s making. That means that you have imprinted a false history in your mind. So I choose not to watch such fictions… except in the cases where I have a good idea of the actual history, because then I can pick holes in what the movie-makers have chosen to distort and sex-up, as it were.
Exhibit A: The movie entitled The Dish, starring NZ actor Sam Neill. Wikipedia contributors have done a pretty good job, with the relevant entry beginning: “The Dish is a 2000 Australian film that tells a somewhat fictionalised story of the Parkes Observatory’s role in relaying live television of man’s first steps on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969″. Ah, somewhat fictionalised… In fact the television pictures of those first steps were not received via Parkes at all.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved the movie, and thought that Sam Neill (who is himself keen on astronomy and space, it seems) did a wonderful job. But the fact is that those TV images were actually received by an entirely different antenna hundreds of kilometres away from Parkes.
The fact that people have watched the movie and thought they were watching a true story may be divined from many news reports appearing this week, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Here is an example, from Stuff:
“Due to the moon being above the Australian sky on the historic day, grainy footage of the first moonwalk was beamed down to the Parkes Observatory in outback New South Wales, an enormous telescope located on a sheep farm 400km west of Sydney.”
Sorry, but no it wasn’t. Indeed the reason for the TV imagery seen as Neil Armstrong descended the LEM ladder and stepped onto the lunar surface being grainy/blurry is connected with which dish collected that signal, the antenna in question being rather smaller than the 64-metre wide Parkes radio telescope, which would have been used if it could have been.
A short aside… Many people have wondered over the years why the late Neil Armstrong largely withdrew from the public eye later in his life. Some said that he became a recluse, but that seems unfair. Just imagine having to find some novel answer every time some journalist (or other person) asks you for the zillionth time what it was like stepping onto the lunar surface and knowing you are the first.
I never met Armstrong, who was clearly a remarkable person, but I have met Buzz Aldrin twice, and I’d never have thought to ask him anything like that. Indeed, it was Aldrin that brought it up, mentioning “Neil and I’s trip” in passing. In my limited experience the best explanation of Armstrong’s gradually-developed reticence is that hinted at (strongly) by Charlie Booker in this TV review.
The reality of what occurred is by no means a secret, and so continued reports of Parkes having brought in those first TV images is simply the result of sloppy journalism, coupled with the influence of that movie. I wrote about what actually happened 13 years ago for the BBC Sky at Night magazine, but there are many, many earlier accounts that are easy to find. What I will give here is a brief discussion of the story, and show you lots of photographs connected with the actual dish that gave us the imagery.
First, let me dispose of the sound. Armstrong’s famous words were received through an entirely different route, using the Goldstone antenna in California. Goldstone, in the Mojave Desert, is the location of one of the three large (70-metre diameter) dishes that comprise NASA’s Deep Space Network, the other two being located near Madrid in Spain, and at Tidbinbilla, just west of Canberra in Australia. Each location also hosts several smaller dishes, but the big ones are needed for the most-distant space probes and weakest transmissions, because of their large collecting area and higher ‘gain’.
After landing in the Sea of Tranquillity, Armstrong and Aldrin felt anything but tranquil. They were supposed to take a sleep, but the pumping adrenalin (no kidding) meant that their scheduled walk on the Moon was brought forward. This threw the plans for receiving the TV pictures into disarray. Somehow the scanner settings for the signal received at Goldstone were set too high, leading to the images being of too high a contrast. Something had to be done. Ground stations in Australia were put on high alert, the Moon just rising in the east as the astronauts prepared to open the capsule door.
NASA had several operational ground stations in Australia, not just Tidbinbilla. Although Tidbinbilla (which is now properly termed the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex) had opened in 1965, the 70-m antenna did not enter service until 1973, after the Apollo lunar landing programme had ended. Some were far west, such as at Carnarvon in Western Australia, so the Moon (and therefore the Apollo spacecraft) could not be seen from there at that time. Other dishes were located further east, and in particular there was Orroral Valley around 50 km south of Canberra, and even closer to the capital was Honeysuckle Creek.
The biggest dish available was at Parkes, but that was a radio telescope pressed into part-time service for the Apollo project rather than a dedicated system. The thing is, astronomers would not normally make observations of celestial objects when they are very low in the sky, just rising above the eastern horizon. The atmosphere through which you are observing causes problems for both optical and radio telescopes, and it appears thicker if one is looking low in the sky. Astronomically, we wait until the objects we want to observe are closer to the zenith, unless we have no choice; I described an example of having no choice in a recent post about tracking Comet Grigg-Skjellerup.
The Moon and so the signal from the Apollo 11 module on the lunar surface were just too low for Parkes to be pointed at. One of the other antennas had to be used. This was the 26-metre dish at Honeysuckle Creek. (Note that the photo at the head of this post shows that dish pointed very low in the sky, as it would have been when receiving the signals of Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface.)
Although the Parkes telescope did indeed take over after only a matter of minutes, the fact remains that it was at Honeysuckle Creek, around 25 km southwest of Canberra, that the TV images of Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder and stepping onto the lunar surface were received, and from there distributed globally. The limited size of the antenna there, coupled with the Moon being low in the sky, contributed to the fuzziness of those pictures.
What I am going to do now is to show you various photographs I took at Honeysuckle Creek and at Tidbinbilla around 15 years ago. If you want to read more about how those first TV pictures were received, I repeat that my brief (two-page) article is available here, but really you ought to read the details from some of the people who actually worked there on the Apollo project, at this website.
If you’ve read thus far, I will finish off the tale with a story that is true, though I think you could hardly make it up. As the plaque just above says, the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station was officially opened by Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia, on St Patrick’s Day in 1967. Precisely nine months later Holt disappeared whilst swimming alone at Cheviot Beach in Victoria. Australians were obviously upset by the apparent drowning of their Prime Minister; so much so that they named a swimming pool in Melbourne in his memory.