Why did Australia have so many tracking stations? Both geography and politics played a part.
The primary US site for tracking deep-space probes is Goldstone, California. To keep continuous contact with these craft, at least three tracking stations are needed, spaced about 120° apart in longitude. Australia is in the right place to host a station.
NASA established its first deep-space tracking station outside the USA at Island Lagoon near Woomera, South Australia, in 1960. In 1965 it established a second station at Tidbinbilla near Canberra – now the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, which CSIRO operates on NASA’s behalf.
Australia was also well placed for most of NASA’s crewed spacecraft. After launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida, their first orbit of Earth would take them within sight of Western Australia. A tracking facility here would help to confirm and refine their path.
As well as being in the right place, Australia was a politically stable country and friendly to the United States – an important consideration during the Cold War.
Australia’s first satellite communications link
As late as 1966 there was no way to get live television signals from Australia to the USA.
With the advent of the Apollo program, NASA wanted secure, reliable communications with its overseas tracking stations, one of which was at Carnarvon in Western Australia. It originally planned to establish satellite earth stations near each station, contracting the work to a US entity, Comsat. But the host regions objected.
Australia’s international telecommunications operator, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission, accepted responsibility for establishing a satellite earth station in Carnarvon. The station was built and brought into operation by February 1967. It was quickly followed by a second earth station at Moree in northwest NSW, which opened in March 1968.
During Apollo 11 these stations transmitted signals from the mission to communications satellites, which relayed them to the USA. Carnarvon sent telemetry from experiments on the Moon’s surface, while Moree sent the TV pictures.