Live from the Moon

Telescope dish at Honeysuckle Creek in 1969

Honeysuckle Creek antenna in 1969. Credit: Hamish Lindsay

Think of Apollo 11 and you think of that famous first footstep onto the Moon, seen by 600 million people as a grainy black and white TV image.

Getting that image to Earth took some doing.

The job of receiving the signals from the Moon fell to NASA’s tracking station at Goldstone, California, and facilities in Australia at Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes, because they had the Moon in view at the scheduled time of the moonwalk.

The signals were transmitted around the country and then to the USA through links put in place by the Australian Postmaster-General’s Department  and the Overseas Telecommunications Authority. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (as the ABC was then called) managed the TV broadcast within Australia.

Tracking stations in Australia

In 1969, Australia had more NASA tracking stations than any country except the USA. There were stations at:

  • Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra and Carnarvon in Western Australia, for tracking crewed spacecraft. The 26-m antenna at Honeysuckle Creek was purpose-built for the Apollo program.
  • Tidbinbilla near Canberra and Island Lagoon near Woomera, South Australia, for tracking craft exploring the solar system.
  • Orroral Valley near Canberra, for tracking satellites in low-Earth orbit.

These stations were part of worldwide networks that let NASA keep tabs on its craft from around the globe. They were managed under terms set out in an Australian–US Space Cooperation Agreement made in 1960. Staffed by Australians, they were operated for NASA by the Australian Department of Supply.

Parkes radio telescope

Opened in 1961, CSIRO’s 64-metre Parkes telescope was intended for radio astronomy, but it caught NASA’s eye even before it was built.

Parkes was designed in the late 1950s. At this time the US Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), soon to be incorporated into NASA, was considering the construction of large antennas to track spacecraft at or beyond the Moon. JPL’s requirements closely matched the specifications for Parkes. And so, even while Parkes was under construction, NASA asked CSIRO if it could be used from time to time for spacecraft tracking.

The Parkes telescope tracking the Moon during a test several weeks before the mission.

The CSIRO Parkes telescope tracking the Moon during a test several weeks before the mission. Credit: CSIRO


In 1961, then again in 1966, NASA proposed that Parkes be formally incorporated into its Deep Space Network. On both occasions CSIRO said ‘no’: the telescope was for astronomy. However, an agreement between NASA and CSIRO in 1961 allowed NASA to call for the telescope to help with tracking when an extra dish would give much-needed sensitivity.

Parkes helped track NASA’s first successful interplanetary mission, the Mariner 2 spacecraft sent to Venus in 1962, and then the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars in 1965, which returned the first close-up photos of the planet’s surface. A NASA-funded study of the telescope’s characteristics also led to a close working relationship between CSIRO and JPL.

However, when NASA scientists published the results of the Mariner 4 mission, Parkes’ role in obtaining them wasn’t acknowledged. This annoyed the Parkes astronomers. In 1966, when NASA asked for Parkes to track a Pioneer spacecraft, the Parkes Observatory’s director, John Bolton, refused.

So the next approach to Bolton was made carefully, at a private dinner in 1968. Would Parkes back up Goldstone for the planned Apollo 11 moonwalk? Because human lives were at stake, this time Bolton (and CSIRO senior management) said ‘yes’. CSIRO committed to doing everything needed for the mission to succeed.