Endless preparations herald big event

Four men stood on top of the Parkes telescope's tower, hand-cranking the gears that turned the big dish while a fifth man timed them with a stopwatch.

They were testing if the telescope could be turned by hand if all power failed.

Just weeks out from Apollo 11's launch, Parkes' preparations were in full swing.

The staff analysed how the telescope's drive and control systems had performed over the years and made backups.

To ensure the TV pictures were received as well as possible, CSIRO redesigned the equipment that converted the incoming radio waves into electrical signals.

NASA equipment to amplify and filter the signals had begun arriving months before and NASA staff to operate it came in June.

The Honeysuckle Creek tracking station had new equipment installed for converting the format of television pictures and a new link put in to carry the pictures to Canberra.

The station did repeated practice runs with the other Australian stations and NASA's whole network.

Lift-off

On the morning of July 16, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were suited up then strapped down in their seats atop the rocket at Florida's Cape Kennedy.

At 9.32am local time the rocket heaved itself into the sky, trailing fire.

Crowds watched from across the river by the launchpad, the rocket seemingly silent at first.

Then the noise arrived. It was like being hit in the stomach with a cricket bat, an Australian onlooker said.

The ground shook six kilometres away.

The rocket's first two stages dropped off and the third carrying the astronauts entered Earth's orbit, its progress tracked by ground stations, ships and aircraft.

Australia's Carnarvon station was the first to get data confirming the orbit was right.

Less than three hours after launch the third-stage rocket motor fired again and Apollo 11 headed for the Moon.

Fire changes plans

Honeysuckle Creek was to track the Apollo command module as it orbited the Moon while NASA's more sensitive Tidbinbilla station received signals from the lunar module on the Moon's surface.

Tidbinbilla staff looked forward to receiving the historic pictures but on July 18, a fire broke out in their antenna's power supply.

Repairs were made in a day but NASA decided to swap the stations' roles.

Tidbinbilla would now track the command module in orbit while Honeysuckle would receive signals from the lunar module on the Moon's surface.

  • One Giant Leap is a joint initiative with CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.