The Dish, the tapes and the man on the moon

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The Dish, the tapes and the man on the moon

That first step. A still from NASA's Apollo 11 Moonwalk Montage

That first step. A still from NASA's Apollo 11 Moonwalk Montage

(Photo: NASA Image and Video Library)

That first step. A still from NASA's Apollo 11 Moonwalk Montage

(Photo: NASA Image and Video Library)

(Photo: NASA Image and Video Library)

That first step. A still from NASA's Apollo 11 Moonwalk Montage

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There’s a buzz around Parkes and it can be heard all the way to NASA.

The central-west town famous for its annual Elvis Festival is ready to honour another cultural icon – “The Dish” (aka, the CSIRO Parkes Observatory).

Not since – well, 50 years ago – has the town been in the spotlight for an event of this magnitude.

Back then, on July 20 1969, the Parkes Radio Telescope was one of three tracking stations capturing signals sent by Apollo 11 as its crew landed the lunar module, Eagle, on the moon.

When astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the surface, followed 19 minutes later by Eagle’s pilot Buzz Aldrin, the telescope converted those signals for a worldwide television audience of 600 million people.

Radio engineer David Cooke was 37-years-old-at the time and a member of the joint Australian and American team tracking Apollo 11.

(Image/CSIRO)
David Cooke (R, with hand over mouth) joins the team watching the moon landing from the telescope’s control room

Half a century later, Mr Cooke still lives in Parkes.

He still recalls training and practising extensively for months. Nothing, he says, was left to chance.

Their number one concern was that, “their part of the project would go as planned and not break down”.

“We were mainly concerned we would get everything right, we thought of everything that could possibly go wrong, and [the] steps to rectify it if it did,” he said.

(Photo: John Sarkissian)
David Cooke with one of the CSIRO designed feed horns he installed in the
telescope’s focus cabin to receive signals from the Lunar Module.

There were three tracking stations receiving signals from Apollo 11.

They were NASA’s Goldstone station in California, Honeysuckle Creek just outside Canberra – and Parkes.

Parkes was supposed to be the backup site, but a change in schedule and the decision to televise the moonwalk, elevated its status to a primary station.

The dish was was tipped on its side, waiting to pick up the signal as the moon came over the horizon. But then a storm and strong winds swept in.

(Photo: David Cooke)
Just after the storm, July 20 1969

The team managed to keep the dish in position, and when Buzz Aldrin activated the TV cameras, Parkes picked up the signal and split it to the ABC in Sydney and to mission control in Houston.

That meant Australians saw Neil Armstrong’s historic first step, 0.3 seconds before the rest of the world.

Houston decided that of the three incoming signals, Parkes’ was the best. So it remained with those pictures for the rest of the two-and-a-half hour broadcast.

David Cooke’s recollection of what happened after that, is magical.

David Cooke talks to Hanh Yoon about the night he helped put two men on the moon.

Among the hundreds of millions also gazing at the moon that night, was a six-year-old first-grade student, sitting in assembly and watching enthralled as the images played out on the small black and white television screen.

That boy, John Sarkissian, grew up to earn a Physics Degree from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and become CSIRO Parkes Observatory’s operational scientist.

He’s now a leading authority on all things to do with the Apollo 11 mission and has supplied much of the background material for this report.

Mr Sarkissian has always been fascinated with the images of that night. So much so that when he discovered in the late 1990’s that the original tapes were missing, he launched his own mission to find them.

The resulting report prompted NASA to initiate a formal search, and while it turned out that the original tapes had been erased, the best existing recording was restored and then released in 2009.

 

Mr Sarkissian’s efforts led to a meeting and personal thank you from the man himself, Neil Armstrong, and an OAM for his services to the profession.

Mr Sarkassian also worked with the team behind the hugely successful movie “The Dish”. He says its release saw visitor numbers to the telescope double.

Once again, Parkes and its population of 11,408, is gearing up for a boost in visitor numbers, while locals are happily sharing their memories of the moon landing.

Editor of the Parkes Champion Post Christine Speelman, said that reporting on these personal historical perspectives has been interesting and “cool”.

“Everybody remembers exactly what they were doing and where they were at the time,” she said.

“Even my dad remembers! [Local] teachers said they rolled out this little TV and they watched the event on a small screen.”

Journalist Barbara Reeves says they’ve been swamped by personal stories and memories. These are now documented on the Post’s website.

(Photo: Parkes Champion Post)
Journalist Barbara Reeves and Editor Christine Speelman are documenting memories of the moon landing (Image/Parkes Champion Post)

David Cooke’s wife, Margaret, laughs and sighs when asked what she remembers. She recalls her husband working hard all day and not getting to see him until 7pm, when she and the children were “allowed to go up to the control room to see the pictures of Armstrong”.

David Cooke and John Sarkissian will be in demand when the CSIRO Parkes Observatory opens to the public, free of charge, on the weekend of July 20-21.

Joining them to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing will be Australia’s first astronaut in space, Andy Thomas.

Dr Thomas has been instrumental in establishing the South Australian Space Industry Centre.

More information about the Open Days can be found on the CSIRO website.

Story Hanh Yoon, Editing Sue Stephenson