‘‘the whole control tower was shaking... it was too important to abandon. So we stayed at the controls. We just hoped it didn’t come crashing down around us.’’
- Neil "Fox" Mason
SLOWLY, Neil ‘‘Fox’’ Mason runs his hand along the wire mesh and gentle curve of The Dish. His Dish. He looks at the heaving mass of steel and technology with a hunger, like it's a classic 1960s American muscle car garaged for decades and roaring for a spin.
What Fox wouldn’t give to get behind the wheel of this 1000-tonne beauty one more time. It was there, behind the radio telescope’s controls, where the 35-year-old sat on July 21, 1969, as NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
‘‘Problem is, I couldn’t tell you what came through on the monitors when it actually happened, they were behind my left shoulder and I was too busy concentrating on the work,’’ he laughed. ‘‘But I was able to see a replay of it later on the ABC.’’
As Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the lunar landscape, Mason expertly steered the dish to track the Moon through the southern sky for over two hours. Wrestling with 110km/h winds, an error of centimetres could have cut their live broadcast of the mission being watched by 600 million people — a fifth of the world’s population.
Four decade later, in honour of the Moon landing’s 40th anniversary tomorrow, Fox returned to the sheep paddock for a reunion with some of his old workmates who helped put the small town of Parkes on the world stage.
There was David Cook, the senior receiver engineer, Les Fellows, who came down from his North Coast home, Cliff Smith, and Ben Lam, one of the young guns who had only been in the job for three years before helping shoulder the dish’s responsibility. While Mason had to catch the Moon landing on a replay, his memory of the dish’s role in the historic moment is vivid. Just as the broadcast began at 12.54pm, a violent squall hit the observatory with winds 10 times stronger than what was normally considered safe.
‘‘We had alarms going off all around us and the whole control tower was shaking. ‘‘But John Bolton (the boss) said it was too important to abandon. So we stayed at the controls. We just hoped it didn’t come crashing down around us.’’
Forty years after our crucial role in beaming pictures of the first lunar landing around the world, Australia will today launch a fresh push into outer space. The Federal Government will announce $88.4 million to help develop the most powerful optical telescope ever built.
The Giant Magellan Telescope will give astronomers previously unimagined ability to probe the origins of the universe — and maybe detect signs of extra-terrestrial life. Combining seven large mirrors, the telescope’s promise is to provide 30 times better resolution than existing landbased telescopes and images 10 times sharper than from the Hubble Space Telescope. To be located in Chile’s high-altitude Atacama Desert, it is due for completion in 2018 and will be able to be operated remotely, including from Australia.
Australia is already a founding partner in the international collaboration of scientific institutions — including the Australian National University — seeking to design and construct the telescope.
Today’s announcement will cement Australia as a major partner, buying a 10 per cent share in the project. Federal Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr last night said the new spending would create at least 240 jobs during construction of the telescope. Of the $88.4 million, $65 million will be for the telescope and $23.4 million for the Australian National University to upgrade its sky-watching infrastructure.
recalling one of history's greatest moments
John Blackman, Entertainer
‘‘I was at a service station in Elwood, selling them cigarettes. I thought ‘here I am watching a part of history’. It beggared belief. It was just too, too much.’
Rod Quantock, Comedian
‘‘I was in Melbourne Uni, in the upstairs lounge. There were people everywhere. It was just a fuzzy picture in the corner. The crackling voices, it was very exciting. For cynical uni students, we just went to jelly.’’
Tom Hafey, AFL coach
‘‘I was with the great Marcus Whelan, Brian Beers and Bobby Dummett. It was at a shoe shop in Smith St. Watching it, it was awesome. It was just so strange, not eerie but I remember it so well.’’
John Brumby, Victoria Premier
‘‘As a year-11 student I watched the moon landing with my school. I watched with a sense of awe and it opened up my mind to the extraordinary possibility of what we can achieve in conquering the unknown.’’