The Dish


SF elements

Apollo 11 moon landing


[watch the skies]

This is the story of how the Australian Parkes radio telescope was a key player in beaming back the famous pictures of the first moon landing. That sounds like it should be a documentary, so why am I reviewing it under science fiction? Well, the event is certainly science, and the film is most definitely fictional, in places at least -- read the disclaimer at the end (along with the bit about the PDP computer being supplied from an Antique Computer Collection!). For example, the scriptwriter appears to subscribe to the Gerry Anderson Management School of staffing levels: we are supposed to believe the radio telescope is staffed by the Director, two technicians, and a NASA representative (oh, and a security guard). The bad weather was true, though.

[in the dish]

However, the small cast allows for tighter plotting. This is a wonderful story of the Apollo 11 moon landing (any documentary of which always bring a lump to my throat), with lots of actual historical footage (the events are only three decades old, and I remember them -- yet it looks like a costume drama!), coupled with that wonderfully quirky humour that Australian films can do so well. Sort of Apollo 13 meets Strictly Ballroom .

It captures brilliantly not only the actual stupendous events themselves, but the stunning effect they had on ordinary people. And it's very funny, too. A gem.

Rating: 2.5

[ unmissable | great stuff | worth watching | mind candy | waste of time | unfinishable ]

reviewed 20 May 2001

The true story is closer to:

One Small Step

The preparations at Parkes for Apollo 11 began several months before the scheduled launch date of July 16, 1969. Only backup equipment was required because NASA had arranged for the crucial part of the mission, the first moonwalk, to occur at a time when the moon would only be in view from its main 64 m dish in California.

Round 1: Goldstone would take the first moonwalk.

Two months before the mission NASA altered the schedule by adding an eight-hour rest period to allow the astronauts time to sleep, in between landing on the moon and then attempting the first moon walk. Goldstone would now be out of view and the status of Parkes had suddenly changed from back up to prime receiving station.

Round 2: Parkes would moonwalk.

A month before the launch a team of NASA engineers led by Bob Taylor arrived at Parkes and began installing equipment, most of which was set out on makeshift racks and tables in the telescope's control room. Among the several tons of equipment was a prototype of the first home video recorder to capture the televised moonwalk. The astronomers at Parkes took responsibility for ensuring that the telescope's drive and control systems were in perfect working order. An analysis was made of the failure rates of every part of the telescope dating back to 1961, with identical backup equipment made ready should the need arise. Nothing was left to chance. If all else failed, teams of men had been organised to turn handles in the gear boxes and drive the telescope by their own muscle power!

The launch went according to schedule on July 16. Over the next four days the equipment at Parkes was thoroughly tested using signals sent from the command module Columbia during its outward journey. After ten orbits of the moon Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin transferred to the lunar module Eagle, leaving Michael Collins in the command module. Then began the descent to their chosen point of touchdown, the Sea of Tranquility. Once the Eagle had landed, an excited Armstrong overruled the idea of a rest period and advanced the scheduled moonwalk by four hours. All the elaborate preparations now seemed in vain---Parkes would be on the wrong side of the earth.

Round 3: Goldstone would take the first moonwalk.

Then there was an unexpected problem. The two astronauts ran into difficulties fitting their spacesuits and the moonwalk was delayed by several hours. By the time Armstrong had descended the steel ladder on Eagle to utter his famous remark---'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'---the moon had just come into view at Parkes.

With the moon almost directly overhead, the Goldstone dish was perfectly placed to receive the TV transmission of the moonwalk, as arranged. But events again took a strange twist. Twenty kilometres away from the dish there was a faulty connection in the cable carrying the TV signals from Goldstone to the command centre in Houston. Goldstone's picture disappeared into the ground.

Final round: Parkes took the first moonwalk.

Throughout the afternoon of Monday, 21 July the team at Parkes carefully tracked the moon to achieve the strongest possible signal. At 5.57 pm, after almost five hours of reception, the telescope was reluctantly shut down as transmission ceased from the telecast 400,000 km away.

To add to the drama, the operating conditions could not have been worse. For several days during Apollo's outward flight to the moon the weather had been perfect at Parkes. Incredibly, moments before the moonwalk began a violent squall could be seen approaching. With the dish down at full tilt it was in its most vulnerable position. In any other circumstances the dish would have been hurriedly driven to the zenith and stowed in its safety position.

The wind gust hit at 100 km per hour, tipping the dish back and badly damaging the first gear-tooth on the rack. Those in the control room felt the tower sway several inches. It was an extraordinary piece of bad timing. The gust was the strongest ever recorded during the telescope's eight years of operation.

The battering wind kept up throughout the afternoon, but despite the dangerous conditions the flow of signals from the moon to Houston via Parkes continued without interruption. A few days later the New York Times reported: 'The tracking crew at the Parkes antenna in Australia won praise today for its work in picking up signals of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. The flight controller, Cliff Charlesworth, said he wanted to give the crew a special bouquet for getting into operation quickly when the signals were suddenly shifted from the Goldstone tracking dish in California. 'It's obvious that the support they provided us was pretty outstanding', Mr Charlesworth said, 'because I think it will be years before anyone can beat that TV spectacular'.'

-- Peter Robertson
Beyond Southern Skies , chapter 10, 1992