- Apr 13, 2019
While dishes at Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek take the credit for beaming the vision of the first steps on the Moon to the world, staff known as 'Creekers' at Cooby Creek in Queensland say it was their work that made the whole project possible.
'Backup dish' in the Darling Downs made high-quality Moon landing video the world never saw
ABC Southern Qld
By Peter Gunders
All that remains of the Cooby Creek Tracking Station is a slab of concrete in a quiet paddock, 20 kilometres north of Toowoomba on the Darling Downs.
But 50 years ago, the site was home to more than 100 technicians experimenting in pioneering satellite communications.
"We made a lot of history out there," said Patrick Hetherman, a controller who worked at the base in the late 1960s.
"A lot of the things we did were super technical, but as far as TV was concerned, we watched the first colour television come into Australia in 1967, eight years before colour TV was launched across the country."
Employee Veda Finlay remembers watching US television programs in colour years before colour TV was broadcast in Australia.
"I remember walking into the control room and saw I Dream Of Jeanie in bright colour on a small screen," she said.
"It was a fascinating time."
While dishes at Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek take the credit for beaming the vision of the first steps on the Moon to the world, staff known as 'Creekers' at Cooby Creek say it was the work they did that made the whole project possible.
"I was on duty that day," recalled Professor John Grant-Thompson, a technician who went on to receive an Order of Australia for pioneering biomedical engineering work.
"We were doing a lot of the work in establishing for NASA what sort of configuration they needed to receive all these signals.
"Part of that was used for reconfiguring the Parkes dish, which was a radio telescope — it wasn't designed to pick up signals from a lunar module on the Moon — but it was possible to reconfigure it.
"On the day, our station prepared to receive the signals from the lunar module. We were a backup, but we did record what came through onto a tape machine."
When the time came, NASA chose to take the feed from the small station at Honeysuckle Creek for the first eight minutes before switching to Parkes for the next two hours of the historic event.
The grainy vision showing Neil Armstrong taking the historic first steps on the Moon are now part of history.
But while it may sound like another Moon landing conspiracy, the retired technicians are adamant they all watched the Moon landing in much higher definition in the Queensland bush — than the other 600 million people who tuned in to televisions around the world.
"One of our guys had experience with all the latest TV equipment — and we had a lot of the latest equipment out there — he used two machines to create an interlaced version which we all watched, much better than the US version," Professor Grant-Thompson said.
"He had a friend at the ABC and was going to give it to him.
"So all we ever saw, even to this day, is that poor, grainy US 425-line version.""But NASA was pretty annoyed and the tape was confiscated.
The tape never resurfaced, but Mr Hetherman said legends of the high-quality recording, and many other yarns, will be shared when retired technicians gather for a reunion in Canberra this weekend.
"Parkes always gets the glory because of the movie," he laughed, referring to the 2000 film The Dish starring Sam Neill."There are still arguments to this day over which tracking station actually did what," he said.
"But we all know they never played cricket on the dish, and they never did it on their own at Parkes either.
"Hollywood has taken some poetic licence in retelling the Australian involvement in the space race."
But the retired technicians are realists.
"Did the people who mined the sand on Rainbow Beach that made the titanium for the legs on the module get enough credit?" he asked.
"Everybody played a part.
He has the photos to prove it."I guess our input ended up being one small job for a technician, but it was one amazing broadcast for the world."
"After the mission NASA sent everyone involved a set of six photos from the Moon. I've kept mine all this time," Mr Hetherman said.
Mr Hetherman said the 'Creekers' were proud of the role they played, not only during the Apollo mission years but for global communications since.
"We did the first trans-Pacific TV experiments, and all sorts of things like that, purely for the good of mankind," he said.
"Everybody today on this planet who uses satellites — or spacecraft as we call them — or the internet, does so because of what we did at Cooby."