As the world gathered around their televisions and prepared to witness a defining moment in human exploration, the pictures they saw were coming through an Australian telescope.
With the immortal words, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, and the world let out a collective sigh of relief.
No one was more relieved than the team working at the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales. They’d had to overcome significant hurdles to make the broadcast possible.
“During the flight to the Moon and the time in lunar orbit, the weather at Parkes had been perfect, but today, of all days, a violent squall hit the telescope. The telescope was subjected to forces ten times stronger than was considered safe,” says John Sarkissian, a CSIRO operations scientist based at the dish, in Australian Sky & Telescope.
"The Dish" at Parkes Observatory [Image: CSIRO]
“As the winds abated, the Moon rose into the off-axis beam of the telescope just as Aldrin activated the TV. It was a remarkable piece of timing.”
The first eight minutes of the broadcast switched between pictures from three stations – Parkes, Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek – before staying with the Parkes’ signal for the remainder of the moonwalk.
As NASA made plans to cover the landing, the Parkes telescope was an easy choice. The telescope, which opened on 31 October 1961, was seen as a world-leader in radio astronomy.
Celebrations to mark the anniversary of the moon landing, and Parkes' role in it [Image: Creative Commons]
55 years since it opened, the Parkes telescope is still one of the best-performing radio telescopes in the world and continues to make important contributions to science. Last month, the CSIRO announced the telescope had detected a key feature of life outside the solar system.
The telescope found the first molecule in space that has a key attribute associated with life. The discovery could help scientists find the origin of homochirality.
The CSIRO and NASA have been working together for almost half a century through the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) that the science agency runs on NASA’s behalf.
Since 1957, Australia has been part of every deep space mission NASA has made including the tracking of New Horizons’ Pluto mission and guiding the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars.
Currently, the CDSCC Complex supports the vital two-way radio contact with the Juno spacecraft as it studies the depths of Jupiter's inner workings.
An Aussie Space Agency?
Our work in the space arena proves we acknowledge the industry’s importance, so why is Australia so hesitant to create an agency?
According to Astrobiology Professor Malcolm Walter from UNSW, no Australian government has shown interest in space exploration, other than the use of satellites.
“In Australia, pragmatism seems often to over-ride vision, to our detriment. Seeking to inspire might seem like an intangible pursuit, but it is also a powerful agent for change. It nurtures education, that generates innovation, that builds an economy. None of this just happens,” warns Professor Walter.
“We need to fight for it.”