By Duncan Steel 16/07/2019 2


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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 want to visit the place where the historic TV images of humankind’s first steps on the Moon were received, head south out of Canberra past Tharwa, where Australia’s Outward Bound has its headquarters. Continue south on Naas Road (not to be confused with NASA), and after about 20 km a turn on the right takes you onto Apollo Road… obviously enough, you are on the right track.

 

Although the site of the old tracking station is now derelict, there are historical markers there which tell the story of its significance. There is also a campsite, if you want to stay overnight.

 

A general view of the Honeysuckle Creek ground station site, from the elevated mound where the 26-metre antenna was located. Buildings previously located within this area of view were occupied by a staff of 110 at peak times, with round-the-clock operations.

 

There are displays in various hardy forms that tell the story of Honeysuckle Creek during the Apollo era.

 

Turning about-face, this is where the dish that received the TV pictures of the first moonwalk was once located.

 

Various features of the original engineering have been used to tell the story of the site.

 

A view looking up the memorial erected at the location of the centre of the 26-metre antenna that received the first moonwalk images from Apollo 11.

 

Details are given for visitors to read the story of Honeysuckle Creek’s role in supporting the Apollo project.

 

 

Obviously there has been some ribbing between the staff who worked at Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek over the decades since 1969, doubtless exacerbated by the appearance of the movie entitled ‘The Dish’.

 

Just to show that it is not always hot and sunny at Honeysuckle Creek, here is a photo taken on a rainy day when the only other visitors were a mob of kangaroos.

 

After the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station was closed, the 26-metre antenna – the real ‘Dish’ – was shifted to Tidbinbilla. And here it is.

 

Entry to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, just over the hills (though a 30 km drive) from Australia’s capital city. The hills help shield the antennas from radio interference.

 

There are nowadays many sources of radio interference that did not need to be worried about in the era of the Apollo project.

 

The 70-metre dish at Tidbinbilla is, along with similar antennas at Goldstone in California and Madrid in Spain, the largest device used to receive signals from space probes far away from Earth.

 

At Tidbinbilla, a somewhat-sunfaded plate describing the history of antenna DSS 46 as being the dish that received the TV pictures of the first steps on the Moon. (The antenna was DSS 44 whilst at Honeysuckle Creek, but was re-numbered when it was shifted to Tidbinbilla.)

 

An enlarged version of the significant part of the inscription describing the history of the antenna.

 

The plaque that originally was displayed at Honeysuckle Creek is now located at Tidbinbilla as a historical relic.

 


 

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.

 


2 Responses to “Apollo 11 and the Real Dish”

  • You have been very loose with the facts. I am an astronomer who has worked on the Parkes telescope. Contrary to what you said, the telescope was more than capable of observing the Moon on that day in July 1969. It was not too low the dish to observe the Moo, as you erroneously point out, for the simple reason that the altitude limits on the dish can be overridden to allow the dish to go down about an extra 5 degrees. I have met with and talked with John Bolton of the CSIRO who assures me that the Parks dish did, in fact, observe the Moon at the crucial time when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder. And yes, the Parks dish did pass on the TV communications to NASA – however, NASA decided to take the Tidbinbilla pictures instead, even though both were offered. They switched to the Parkes feed as soon as they realized that the Parks images were of much better quality, however, there was no logical reason they could have switched earlier.
    So while you are technically correct to say that the first images came from Tidbinbilla, you are incorrect in claiming that the Parks dish was not able to observe the Moon and pass on the TV images to NASA.

    • Apologies for the delay in putting up the above comment, which arrived whilst I was in transit from NZ to France, since when I have been unable to get a good enough internet connection.

      When I am able, I will be posting an appropriate response to the above comment from Wilson. In the interim, others might have comments to contribute with regard to the matter and/or manner of Wilson’s comment.