Friday, 13 July 2007

Carnarvon Western Australia — 1965–1967 : Project Apollo in Australia

My father's recollections...

It was during the early sixties, after the Cuban missile crisis of late 1962 and the J. F. Kennedy speech about putting a man on the moon that I became interested in the space program. In particular listening to the broadcast of the first Gemini flight with John Glenn, it seemed to be the way to go. At that time I was working on some of the first main frame computers of the time and spending more time going out and repairing them than there were days in the week. In early 1965 I noted an advert in the “Electronics Weekly” from Amalgamated Wireless of Australia asking for people to go to Carnarvon, Western Australia to operate and maintain the electronic equipment to be installed in the ground station there for the Apollo project. I applied and was accepted.

In June 1965 together with several other people I attended a short course arranged by AWA in London’s Tavistock Hotel. This course was really “a get to know Carnarvon” and having obtained the appropriate visas and clearances I was bound for New York (first class) and thence on to Dallas for the inaugural course on the Unified ‘S’ Band system designed for the Apollo project. This course was given by Collins Radio at their factory in Arapaho Road in Richardson County, Dallas, Texas.

There were seven people on that course mainly Australians of English, Irish and Italian ancestry, a “true blue” Aussie and three Brits. At weekends we took the hire cars back to Hertz for cleaning and refuelling and occasionally went with the Hertz people to Love Field to collect the rental cars left by departing visitors. The Texans, being great jokers, once allocated me a huge vehicle to drive back; it was very fast and nearly got me into speed problems. Arriving back at Hertz they were all laughing over it, but at least they had a cold beer waiting for me. One weekend one of the instructors, me and two others went on a “self drive” flight to Fort Worth and surrounding areas. I actually “drove” the plane to Fort Worth under the eagle eye of the instructor. This was an enjoyable experience.

At the end of the course we went on to Washington for a few days to look around the Space Centre at Greenbelt Maryland, and then we split up returning to UK and Australia respectively. After the usual family visits and packing up ready for our new life in Australia we set off from Heathrow in a piston engine Bristol Britannia. This flight stopped at Kuwait airport, which was then just a shack guarded by a man on a camel, then following the coast of India to Ceylon. Back in the air to Singapore we ran into a tropical thunder storm. The plane was tossed about like a straw in the wind and I spotted water condensation coming in from the door, I called the stewardess who gave me great confidence by turning as white as a sheet and calling for the flight engineer. They then stood by the door jamming a cot mattress around it until the plane landed with some violent skidding before finally coming to a halt. We were delayed some six hours whilst the door seals were fixed and thence on to Perth. This last leg of the journey was perfect, we saw the North West coast of Australia very clearly and spotted a large dust cloud moving down the coast road obviously caused by a large vehicle, later we came to know and love the large Gascoigne Trader trucks which were the life line of Carnarvon.

Spending a few days in Perth we purchased a VW Kombi in which we explored Perth and the surrounding countryside, after this we headed north through places like Midland and New Norcia until we got to Geraldton some 300 miles from Perth, I used to joke that Geraldton, situated some 300 miles south of Carnarvon was where you had to go to get your hair cut, the haircut wasn’t bad but it was the tar they dabbed on if they nicked you with the shears that stung.

Heading north from Geraldton to Carnarvon was through a much more desolate landscape made memorable by having a petrol station called the Billabong some 150 miles along the way. There was a very small weather beaten sign a few miles from there indicating that Shark Bay was down the track to the left, if you cared to take it. There was also a sign at the 26th Parallel so that you knew where you were. We spotted the antennas of the tracking station on Brown’s Range from quite a distance away having crossed over the dry river bed of the Wooramel River. We called in at the tracking station to find where we were going to live and then on to 4 West Street which we were going to call home for at least a few weeks. At West Street we had pigeons nesting in the roof but with the aid of a broom I gently eased them over the edge and into free flight, nest and all. Later we were infested with cockroaches which caused us to move to a new house in Babbage Island Road.

The next few months were hectic, an American team had arrived to commission the equipment and we had problems on the angle sensors on the antenna and had to wait until there was very little wind at night whilst the antenna was pointing to set star positions, the angles were then set to correspond to the star positions. If I recall correctly at the end of that period the antenna was .0023 degrees out on the X axis and about .004 degrees on the Y axis, but to all intents and purposes it was “spot on” since any corrections were to be undertaken by Houston during actual missions. The memory of those clear star filled nights was brought to the fore when having a meal outdoors at Ayers Rock some 38 years later.

Christmas Day 1965 arrived and the American team were given invitations to meals and parties, we had two for dinner, Don Park and Bill Ross (whose daddy was a tail gunner on a beer truck during prohibition). We managed a traditional dinner, much to their delight, although the temperature was touching the hundred degree mark.

My job was to operate and maintain the Antenna Positioning Programmer and the Tracking Data Processor with some secondary responsibility for the pseudo random numbering range calculation system and an item of telemetry equipment which I can’t remember the name of but it was the source of some disagreement between myself and the supervising engineer when during a test flight I changed the phase in the input feed to correctly get the information in and processed. I justified this later by drawing innumerable phase diagrams to prove the point. We then had a slack period whilst we waited for an actual mission.

We then moved to Babbage Island Road and new neighbours with whom we are still in contact. My wife got herself a job at the local High School as school secretary which led to her becoming a maths teacher when we returned to UK.

I suddenly found myself giving guided tours of the Tracking Station to visiting dignitaries or tourists, most notably Miss Australia 1966, this exercise gave me a much needed break from doing very little during slack periods.

The American team left a large coffee machine and for some time I ran a coffee club which for two shillings a week provided unlimited coffee for the participants of the scheme until we had a fully operational canteen. When the club closed down the money in the kitty provided for a large barbecue. The wives provided salads and sweet dishes and it proved to be a big success.

Over the next two years, if my recollection is correct, there were 5 Lunar Orbiter missions, one Surveyor mission and several Saturn VIB test flights. The last Gemini flight was in 1966 but we were not used to track this. In those early days there was insufficient tracking data available for us to use and locating the moon’s position was quite a headache so I obtained a Nautical Almanac and used it to locate the moon’s position on the horizon, my positioning was correct but I was always 4 minutes adrift in time. I never really found out why but suspect it was the refraction caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. Locating the moon when it was away from the horizon and overhead was much more difficult to do “on the hoof” as it were, with a present day PC it would have been easy. One of the chaps came up with an ingenious device which simply consisted of two school protractors mounted in an X and Y plane with a peashooter as a sighting tube. This worked extremely well for the few weeks we were without pointing data. I laugh when I think that two protractors and a peashooter were used on a multi million dollar project to enable us to check out the equipment. After this we were called the “Moonrakers” by the rest of the Tracking Station. The device is shown on the console in the picture right.

One of the first missions we undertook was to gather information from a Saturn rocket on the behaviour of rocket fuel when in orbit. The TV pictures we obtained had a surreal quality about them especially when in free fall an ‘ullage’ rocket was fired to send the fuel to the rocket engines.

When we were given our first Lunar Orbiter mission it was quite a thrilling experience made more memorable when at a distance of 25,000 nautical miles the other radars on site lost contact and we announced that “USB was still in contact” and remained so until it passed round the other side of the moon. This more than made up for the Moonraker comments!!

At about this time I was asked to see if a device could be made to check for any discrepancies in the Pseudo Random Number ranging equipment when we had Lunar Missions. I thought about this and came up with some circuitry made of the standard logical circuits used. I never used it myself being on leave when it was used but apparently it functioned OK and did pick out generated errors successfully, which was a good job since I could not remember how I had worked it out!

We were allocated leave, expenses paid to Perth twice a year and a long distance trip once a year so we usually took ourselves off to Perth for a week staying in what was then The Terminal Motor Lodge and watching Star Trek on television, what luxury! There was no television reception in Carnarvon although I recall in Fong’s Chinese emporium there was one which showed mostly interference patterns although I gather occasionally they could actually see a program.

On one holiday we toured the South West as far as Albany and the karri forests, I actually climbed the 220ft “Gloucester Tree” which had a fire lookout post on the top, and how I managed to crawl into the hut on the top I don’t know but the view was worth it. We camped in the Porongorups near to Castle Rock; this photograph taken there still graces our sitting room.

Carnarvon was classed as a desert area since it had less than an inch of rain per year but in 1966 we had a cyclone whose centre passed some 80 miles north and brought with it torrential rain. We battened down the house and waited, when we discovered it was not going to be too traumatic we went out on to the verandah and watched the rain teeming down, I suddenly realised it was pure water cascading down the pipes and filled a kettle and some saucepans with it and made some tea, it tasted delicious. The tap water in Carnarvon was pumped up from the river bed and tasted of “red earth” the rain water by contrast was veritable nectar. When the rain ceased we went, in company with many other townspeople to ten–mile bridge to watch the river flood. The flood water carried a huge amount of debris with it consisting of all manner of trees and sundry small animals. The flood left enough water depth for us to use the river as a swimming area for quite a few weeks, and then it dwindled into a small pool by the pumping station.

In about June 1966 a strange looking antenna began to be built near the Tracking Station, it turned out to be a Cassegrainian Horn device being built by OTC (the Overseas Telephone Company). It was built to utilize the Early Bird satellite which was in place over the Indian Ocean. Little did I know then that my family and I would be asked to participate in a trans-world link up with UK. On 25th November 1966 this took place, from my point of view it was nearly a disaster since the satellite was drifting out of position and whilst the initial people could hold a conversation when it came to my turn I could not hear a thing and I had to keep starting my spiel, fortunately my wife managed to talk away without bothering about a response. However it was recorded and 38 years later I obtained a video copy.

A tropical festival was going to be held in the town and some of the USB personnel built a flying saucer which was a success winning a cup, the other station personnel built a Saturn VIB rocket which I thought was very good. The festival made a change from the daily routine.

We used to be picked up by mini bus and taken to the Tracking Station: one day I looked at the bus and it appeared to be weighted down on one side. Our lady driver (known as the local Stirling Moss) asked us to sit on the other side to balance out the weight of a huge man who was joining the tracking station staff, in later conversations with him I discovered he was the sub chief of a local Aborigine tribe. After a few weeks he disappeared and I found out later he was in jail in Geraldton having taken part in the ritual tribal killing of a young girl.

One of the local policemen came from Surrey and he was a big man, he had red hair which he said was strawberry blonde (and who was ever going to say he was wrong). At that time he used to go on horseback inland to visit the sheep stations and local tribes. I asked him if he could get me a genuine boomerang on his travels and I gave him, I think A$10 to get me one. I still have that boomerang which he assured me was carved especially for me by one of the tribal elders he contacted.

One other notable occurrence at this time was the changing over of the currency from Australian Pounds to Dollars. The new system was based on the 10 shilling as the base unit (Dollar), this to me was a sensible decision and took place on 14th February 1966.

At last a real mission, one of the Lunar Orbiters which we tracked from near launch to the Moon and for two weeks after. The equipment worked so well that a card school flourished, we had only one breakdown in the relaying of information to Houston and this was cured within twenty minutes. I think it was during the Surveyor 3 launch there was a sudden change of plan and the rocket instead of making a first pass over Carnarvon was sent directly into orbit over Bermuda, a slightly worried station director called me in to discuss when we could hope to acquire it, fortunately I had worked out the position on the horizon from Bermuda's geographical location and assured him it would in about 10–15 minutes. This turned out to be a very good estimate and we acquired to rocket in that time.

On the 27th January 1967 we were preparing for a real network simulation when we had the news that the capsule had caught fire and the astronauts had perished. I think we were all stunned by this event and the Apollo program was halted for an indefinite time. At that time it had become evident that both my sons needed to be in a good educational establishment, so I prepared myself and family to return to UK. In the event this turned out to be a good decision since both boys obtained degrees in Mathematics from Emmanuel College Cambridge, the elder boy also obtaining a Masters degree in Astrophysics.

In early November 1967 we made our last trip to Perth, this was not without incident as when we had a “comfort stop” we were confronted with two 6 foot kangaroos. We sold the car to our old bank manager who was now in Perth. There was another bank employee from Carnarvon in Perth who advised us on our money transactions to our advantage — Harold Wilson's famous “Pound in your pocket” speech happened just before we bought Sterling!

We shipped home on the Canberra, visiting South Africa and the Canary Islands on the way; it was a fitting end to what was really a unique experience.

Carnarvon Tracking station

The Honourable Allen Fairhall, M.P., Minister of State for Supply, opened this station on 25th June 1964 on behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States of America.

This fountain was presented to the station by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited to commemorate the occasion.

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