Remembering Canberra's space legacy - Op Ed, The Canberra Times


The Canberra Times, 15 July 2019

Every baby boomer recalls where they were when they first heard Neil Armstrong say ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ (or the more poetic words that preceded them, ‘Tranquility base - the eagle has landed’).

Too few people know the crucial role that Canberra played in communicating those words to millions of people around the world.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings this month, it’s worth honouring the role that the Australian tracking stations played in that momentous event. There were four tracking stations across Australia – Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla in the ACT, Parkes in NSW and Carnarvon in Western Australia. Together, they played a pivotal role in relaying sound and images from space back to NASA.

While Parkes starred in the movie, it was Honeysuckle Creek and its 26 metre antenna dish that received and relayed the first images of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon to 600 million people on Earth.

Honeysuckle Creek no longer stands – closed in 1981 and dismantled within its bush setting – but people can still visit the concrete remains of the former station, or visit the dish itself at the Canberra Space Centre at Tidbinbilla.

Closer to the CBD, Deakin boasts a building purpose built as a NASA Communications Switching Centre. Now known as the Deakin Telephone Exchange, the centre was the central point for control of all communications between Australia and NASA centres, including Houston, for the Apollo program. The Switching Centre supported all NASA missions until its closure in 1988.

As well as honouring our past, we should also recognise the ongoing value of the Australian space program. The initial decision to locate the Australian Space Agency in Canberra was the right one, and it was disappointing that the Coalition then opted to move the agency to Adelaide. Nonetheless, the space agency offers the potential for Australians to engage with what other countries are doing, as well as the extensive private sector program.

From 2 kilogram ‘CubeSat’ satellites to Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket (capable of carrying a Tesla roadster), space research is enjoying a renaissance. Climate modelling, GPS mapping, materials science, gravity effects and robotics are among the many fields that will be shaped by space science.

After a multi-decade hiatus in moon landings, lunar exploration is enjoying a renaissance. In January, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, and Israel landed the first privately-funded moon mission. NASA has announced that returning to the moon is a priority. There have now been eight successful Mars landings by robotic spacecraft, and many believe that it won’t be long before humans make their way to the red planet.

Here in Canberra, there are a plethora of space researchers, from the Mount Stromlo space testing facilities (including the fabulously named ‘Wombat XL’, the only space simulation facility in the Southern Hemisphere) to the UNSW Canberra Space team, a group of 40 academics and professional staff. For kids, the YMCA runs a five-day Canberra Space Squad, Australia’s only residential holiday camp for students in years 6 to 9 who love space. And there’s the Canberra Space Centre, located at Tidbinbilla, where families can see moon rocks, models and movies. Not only does it tell the story of past achievements - it also provides a window into what future space programs might uncover.

Once upon a time, we used to say ‘the sky’s the limit’. Now, we know that it’s just the beginning.


Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.