Eavesdrop on history

Tracking Apollo to the Moon
March 15, 2002

In our solar system there are nine major planets, more than 60 satellites and hundreds of thousands of minor planets or asteroids. About 70 planets are known to be orbiting other stars. There are probably billions of planets in our galaxy, and billions of galaxies in our universe. Our Earth must be one among more than a billion billion planets in the universe.

From Earth, mankind has sent out equipment to land on five other worlds - the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the asteroid Eros - and has walked on one of them. American poet Archibald MacLeish described the moment when Neil Armstrong stepped from Apollo 11 onto the Moon in 1969: "O / silver evasion in our farthest thought - / "the visiting Moon"... "the glimpses of the Moon".../ and we have touched you!"

Like millions of others, I watched the grainy telecast of that touch. What linked me and the distant astronauts on the Moon was the Manned Space Flight Network of tracking stations. The network carried not only the television picture but also the more crucial radio signals that controlled and tracked the Apollo spacecraft.

Nasa had established a comprehensive network of tracking stations for spacecraft orbiting the Earth just outside the atmosphere and for spacecraft visiting other planets. The Deep Space Network of extra-large dishes sends the strongest possible command signals to the most distant spacecraft and catches their faintest whispered replies. The dishes that track spacecraft in low earth orbit are smaller, nimbler, more numerous. The Manned Space Flight Network was configured from some of these tracking stations for the Apollo missions. Controlled from Houston were three major stations: in California, Spain and at Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra in Australia.

London-born Hamish Lindsay worked first at a tracking station in Perth and moved to Honeysuckle Creek for the Apollo programmes, remaining until 1983 for the Pioneer , Viking and Voyager missions. As a member of the ground control team, he eavesdropped on communications between the astronauts and Houston control. Like me in front of my TV set, Lindsay watched and listened - but was really a part of the story.

Using his experiences, access to principal sources and transcripts of conversations between astronauts and the ground, he has written a comprehensive account of the Apollo programme, starting with events leading up to lunar exploration and the Apollo programme's precursors - the Mercury and Gemini projects. The book should appeal to anyone with more than a casual interest.

The Apollo programme, born in 1959 as the Manned Lunar Landing Program, was proposed by Nasa at just the right time. In 1960-61, President John F. Kennedy was smarting politically from the Bay of Pigs fiasco and from the evident lead of the USSR in space flight. Russia had made the first robotic landings on the Moon, while their cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had made the first manned flight round the world. Kennedy was looking to re-establish United States prestige. The Apollo programme provided this opportunity, although Nasa gave no guarantees. "Thirty billion bucks," said Kennedy to his advisers, "and we don't even know if the damned thing will work."

The project suffered a setback, but survived cancellation when three astronauts were killed by a fire in 1967 while practising in the Apollo 1 command module. Test teams from Houston took their precedent from the high-profile tragedy and arbitrarily picked on key personnel at the tracking station and removed them from practice runs, as if they had just suffered a fatal accident.

After a series of unmanned flights, Apollo 7 returned American astronauts to space 1968. Walter Schirra gained notoriety on this flight through his refusal to be watched during in an unscheduled TV transmission. Within a year Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. A succession of flights was scheduled at two-month intervals.

By Apollo 13 , the public had become blase, and little TV coverage was scheduled for its launch and astronauts' shows during the early flight. This changed as the spacecraft approached the Moon, when the explosion of an oxygen tank triggered a succession of equipment failures that almost resulted in the loss of the craft and its crew. Jack Swigert (played by Tom Hanks in the Hollywood film) told us about it with his now famous:

"Houston, we have a problem."

The flight plan had to be changed. As shown in the Australian movie, The Dish , the astronomical radio telescope at Parkes in Australia was in a key geographical position to relay radio signals to and from the ailing spacecraft; it was put into service as a tracking station at short notice. A billion people watched the safe return of Apollo 13 on TV.

There were four more Apollo missions, the last being Apollo 17 at the end of 1972. Altogether, 12 moonwalkers had spent a total of 300 hours on the Moon's surface. This is a few parts in a billion billions of the entirety of human experience - the same ratio as the briefest flick of a touch to a lifetime.

The most important scientific outcome - understanding of the origin of the Moon - came from analysis of the 300kg of returned lunar rocks. The Moon proved to be made of the same material as Earth, both being products of a huge collision early in the life of the solar system between a planet and a giant asteroid jaywalking across the planetary orbits. The political outcome was to establish the US as the main space-faring nation, just as Kennedy had wanted. The inspirational outcome has been to make us fully realise our true place in the universe because some of our representatives have experienced it, while we listened and watched.

Paul Murdin is a fellow, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge and worked until recently at the British National Space Centre.

Tracking Apollo to the Moon

Author - Hamish Lindsay
ISBN - 1 85233 212 3
Publisher - Springer
Price - £24.50
Pages - 426

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