Speaking at a White House event honouring Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, saidhe was "disappointed" with the progress America's space program had made over the past 50 years. Australia also ought to have its own regrets, except that most people are unaware of what happened in this country following the wind down of the US space program in the 1970s and 1980s.
During celebrations over the past week of the anniversary of the Moon landing, Australians have engaged in a round of "back-slapping" about our nation's contribution. This stems from the role of the Honeysuckle Creek (ACT) and Parkes (NSW) tracking stations in broadcasting the first walks on the Moon.
The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science trumpets on its website that:
…the Apollo Moon program was an enormous feat of technological ingenuity...
…many nations, including Australia, contributed to its success. By 1969, Australia hosted the greatest number of NASA tracking stations outside the US, employing around 700 people.
Australian tracking stations played important roles in the Apollo 11 mission. The Carnarvon station provided the 'go/no go' confirmation that sent the Apollo spacecraft out of Earth orbit and on its way to the Moon. Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla, in the ACT, provided vital telecommunications and telemetry links throughout the mission. During the operations at the Moon, Tidbinbilla supported the Command Module, Columbia, in lunar orbit, while Honeysuckle Creek maintained contact with the Lunar Module. Carnarvon, Honeysuckle Creek and the Orroral Valley tracking station received the data from scientific instruments that the astronauts left on the Moon.
While Australia played its part in 1969, we need reminding of how Australia (especially the ACT) squandered its heritage from NASA.
During the space race in the 1960s, NASA built the three key tracking stations south of Canberra, at Honeysuckle Creek, Orroral Valley and Tidbinbilla. The first two are within the Namadgi National Park, which was subsequently established in 1984. Honeysuckle Creek, located in the Brindabella Range 30 km south of Canberra, had a 26-metre dish, purpose-built for the Apollo missions. With sister stations near Goldstone in California and Madrid, Spain, between them they could keep contact with a distant spacecraft. All three Australian stations were locally staffed and managed by the then Department of Supply.
In the mid-1980s two of the ACT's three tracking stations, Orroral and Honeysuckle Creek, were officially closed following the wind down of the Apollo program. Equipment dismantling and removal was undertaken, with some equipment moved to the nearby Tidbinbilla tracking station.
Although there had been proposals to preserve the sites and equipment, nothing was actually done to preserve the complexes (which would have cost millions to build). They were instead left to a fate of severe vandalism for several years, and by the early 1990s the damage was so severe that all the structures were bulldozed. Orroral had previously been the largest tracking station in the world outside of the United States, and at one time had staff levels of over 200.
At ceremonies at Honeysuckle Creek (now little more than a camping ground) over the past week, dignitaries had only the concrete slab and some signs to look at.
It is hard to believe that in 2016, almost 48 years after the moon landing, and almost a quarter of a century after the site was levelled, the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station (ironically) was added to the ACT's heritage register, and was joined by the (similarly-cleared) sites of the Orroral Valley tracking station and the geodetic observatory nearby. Talk about too little, too late, and bureaucratic hypocrisy.
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