The town that put the men on the Moon on the box

Forty years ago, a telescope in the middle of rural Australia allowed 600 million people to witness one of history's greatest moments. Kathy Marks reports from Parkes in New South Wales

Friday 17 July 2009 00:00 BST

Just about everyone born before 1969 remembers watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the Moon. Six hundred million viewers were glued to their televisions for the momentous event – but what few people know is that the pictures came courtesy of a radio telescope in the middle of a field in rural Australia.

The observatory, near the small town of Parkes in New South Wales, was built in 1961 and spent its first eight years listening to the stars. But in early 1969, Nasa asked it to perform a much more glamorous task: to receive signals from the first men on the Moon and beam them to mission control in Houston.

As they prepare to mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing next Tuesday, Parkes locals still recall the sense of anticipation in the town. The press had descended, as had four Nasa engineers. Every possible test had been carried out. "We'd been preparing for weeks," says Neil "Fox" Mason, who operated the telescope on that crucial day.

Parkes seemed the perfect choice: its dish, 210ft wide, was the largest in the southern hemisphere and it was in a sheltered spot, relatively free from radio interference. That was the theory, at least.

A week before take-off, the observatory director, John Bolton, said: "Perhaps our biggest weakness is the weather. If we get a very severe storm with very high winds, then we'll no longer be able to keep tracking."

His words proved prescient. But it wasn't only the weather that proved problematic. Armstrong and his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin were scheduled to rest for six hours when they landed but they were too excited and decided to leave the lunar module straight away.

The Moon had not yet risen over Parkes. It looked as if the telescope's starring role – which later inspired a whimsical Australian film, The Dish – would instead go to Nasa's tracking station in Goldstone, California.

Mr Mason, retired and still living in Parkes, recalls: "Armstrong threw a spanner in the works." But the pair took so long to don their spacesuits and depressurise the cabin that the Moon was just emerging when they finally appeared. David Cooke, the senior receiving engineer that day, says: "The timing was remarkable."

For the first nine minutes, Houston switched between Goldstone, Parkes and another Nasa station at Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra. But Parkes's pictures were far superior, so for the remainder of the 2.5-hour broadcast, it was their images that were transmitted around the world.

But then the weather changed."This great storm front came through and caught us all unawares," Mr Mason says. "It was pretty hair-raising. All the alarms were ringing and the control tower was shuddering and swaying." The wind was well outside the safety limits, but Dr Bolton chose to continue anyway.

Mr Mason remained at the controls of the 1,000-tonne dish, which was tipped to the ground, in its most vulnerable position. "You just hoped the thing wasn't going to come crashing down on top of you," he says.

Mr Cooke was watching the pictures on a monitor screen. When Armstrong stepped on to the Moon, one of the American engineers, who had spent years preparing for the event, observed laconically: "How about that." Afterwards, Mr Cooke went outside and looked up. "The Moon was still in the sky and I thought, gosh, there are people up there, and we've helped to do that."

In 1970, the telescope helped astronauts aboard the stricken Apollo 13 return to Earth and it has supported a string of missions since, including Galileo's probe of Jupiter in 1996. It has also made numerous discoveries.

Over coffee in the nearby Dish Café, where Meteor Muesli and Halley's Hot Dog are on the menu, John Sarkissian, the observatory's operations scientist, ticks them off: "We discovered the magnetic field of the Milky Way galaxy. We identified the most distant objects in the universe, the quasars. We've discovered more pulsars [spinning cores of collapsed stars] than all other radio telescopes combined. We've mapped the distribution of hydrogen in our galaxy to over 300 million years distant."

The mayor of Parkes, Ken Keith, calls the telescope "our icon", and those associated with it admit to an attachment. "It's a very elegant instrument, beautifully proportioned," says Mr Cooke, now 77. But until The Dish was released in 2000, few people even in Australia, knew much about its role in the Apollo 11 mission. Visitor numbers have since doubled.

Mr Cooke says: "I didn't really think at the time that we were making history. We were just doing our job, although I guess we were pretty pleased to be involved, even in a small way." Mr Mason often harks back to that day in 1969: "I still think about it a lot. It was the time of my life."

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