Honeysuckle Creek

It’s the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this year. I might be the Walter Mitty of spacemen these days, occasionally commuting to the office in my replica Apollo 11 suit, but I did have a strangely close brush with the Apollo programme when I was a kid.

Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is known as the bush capital.  It’s a long way from anywhere, 90 miles from the sea, and sits in the high air of the Southern tablelands.  Canberra is only a century old.

On many days, the sky is a blue so deep that it leans to the dark of space.  Outside the city the land is so thinly populated that at night the view of the stars is three dimensional. No picture from Hubble or pair of 3D specs can capture this.

The Milky Way seems in reach. Lie on the ground and you see that the Earth is facing into a sequined curtain, hugged by wisps of galactic smoke. Kubrick, Spielberg and Nolan can’t beat this show.

I grew up with this sky above me.  Across the road was a huge playing field and on summer nights if there was nothing on the black and white telly I could go and watch the stars.  It was quite a show.

My mum and dad did lots to fan my interest in the sky.  They bought me a small telescope that I’d occasionally manage to line up with the moon.  They bought me books like Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky, John Wyndham’s The Outward Urge and others.

In 1969 I watched live, along with the rest of the world, as Neil Armstrong planted his size 10 foot on the lunar surface.  The images on the 4:3 cathode ray TV in Miss Cole’s classroom weren’t a patch on my sky at night, but they were, remarkably, thanks to something almost in my back yard: a place just 25 miles down the road called Honeysuckle Creek.

The high air and thin population made the bush around Canberra the perfect home for the radio telescopes at Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla and the optical telescope at Mt Stromlo.

My dad worked for something called the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). CSIRO did all the cool scientific stuff all over Australia. Scientists there developed WiFi, studied dung beetles, developed better strains of grain, made clever plastics and self-twisting yarn.  Lots of other things, too.  CSIRO (and I’m kicking myself for forgetting this until this morning) also administered all NASA facilities in Australia.  More proximities!

The Honeysuckle Creek station is most famous for being the antenna which received and relayed to the world the first historic TV images of astronaut Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon on 21 July 1969.

That one small step was received by the 26 metre antenna there. Neil landed on the moon.  The images of Neil landing on the moon first landed near me.

Apart from the television pictures they provided, Honeysuckle Creek, nearby  Tidbinbilla and Parkes (a bit further away) had voice and telemetry contact with the lunar and command modules.  All the important instructions and nudges passed through there after moonrise, when the world was facing the right way.

So, 25 miles away from my house, a radio telescope was receiving and sharing the first TV signals and guidance information from Astronauts on the moon.

Here’s the road sign. Apollo Road.

Here’s a short newsreel film showing Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt opening Honeysuckle Creek.

Here’s an interview with Australian Prime Minister John Gorton at Honeysuckle Creek on the day of the moon landing which I have to say contains a pretty dazzling admission. [John Gorton, replaced the man who replaced Harold Holt as Prime Minister after Holt disappeared when swimming off the Victorian coast.  His body was never recovered].

As a kid I was always a geek, head in the clouds, running along, pretending I was Superman.  This was a superman before diet plans and gyms.  An old school superman.

My friend Malcolm was also a geek (Batman to my Superman). Malcolm’s dad, Don, worked for NASA at the Deakin switch, an ordinary concrete building in a southern suburb of Canberra, which made the connection between Honeysuckle Creek and Mission Control in Houston.  Here’s Don is in his chair.  What a great job. Don talking to astronauts.

This is the door to the computer room.

Deakin computer room door

One day I visited.  I remember how huge the computers seemed.  Actually, they were probably the first computers I’d ever seen.  They had tapes and lights and the whole place looked like a slightly more administrative version of the bridge of the Enterprise.  The other thing about the visit is that I got to fill out a computer card, it got inserted into the computer and after what seemed like ages it printed out Bugs Bunny.

The Australian Prime Minister did this on an earlier visit. It printed out a likeness of him. In all honesty, I think I could have done a better job.

Our school computer used to be wheeled in to class.  It was the size of a cash register and made similar noises.  One kid in our maths class raced it and beat it on one equation.  It might have been luck.  It might not have.

Here’s the inside of Honeysuckle Creek.  This man ran it.  His name is Hamish.  Spooky, eh?

Posts like this, like steps in the lunar dust, are like palimpsests, and I’ve discovered since from another of my school friends, Sharon, that her dad worked at Honeysuckle Creek on several of the Apollo missions and on Skylab.  He was responsible for keeping the connection live between Houston and Madrid and space.  Sharon sent me a few pictures.  Here’s a commemoration plaque.

Here’s another photo Sharon sent me of Honeysuckle Creek.  Kangaroos in the snow.  The Brindabellas are often covered in snow in the Winter. There’s a metaphor in this somewhere. [By the way, Astronauts can jump 22 feet into the air on the moon if they’re allowed.  Kangaroos can jump 6 feet in the air on the Earth and cover 25 feet in a stride.]

One desperately sad thing is that the site has been levelled.  There’s almost nothing left, other than some concrete foundation slabs and a commemorative display.  All that incredible ingenuity and technology taken down and moved away.  It’s almost as though it landed and took off again.

How strange and inspiring to have lived so close to all this amazing, vital work, lots of it ingenuity rather than silicon.  All these decades on, it’s easy to overlook the extraordinary technical achievement.  As I hover over the post button, making this available to anyone who cares to look, I think nothing of the ease of it or of the complexity that underpins it.  Back then, when the only phones were fixed line, when there was no Internet, when you watched what you were served on TV and had no option other than the off button, here was an international team arranging a feat that (relative to the expectations of its audience) was truly profound.  We take technological progress for granted.  Breakthroughs don’t seem so hilly anymore.  What is imagined in a sci fi movie often seems like a marker for something that will be along in a few years’ time.

Taking a bit of time to step back and think about some of these amazing achievements is worth the journey. It makes me dizzy to think that all this happened in my back yard.

The spirit of the time is another matter. When Kennedy made his commitment to put people on the moon before the decade was out, however driven by geopolitics the statement was, it was also an affirmation of the outward, inclusive, collaborative urge. At some point in the next few months, we’ll have a very different politician leading America’s celebration of that antique achievement. What a shame that the narrative will, without question, be underpinned by nationalism, isolation, talk of walls and borders. Carl Sagan’s cautionary words about the ‘pale blue dot’ from the 1970s have never felt so resonant and important. Have a listen: