stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
July 21st, 2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of man landing on the moon. A unique time in the history of humanity, one that was watched on television by one fifth of the world’s population. This amazing achievement was made possible by a collaboration between Australian and American scientists and engineers. Some of these Australians were located twenty kilometres north of Parkes at the CSIRO Radio Telescope, aka ‘The Dish’. As huge celebrations are planned globally for this event that united humanity, historyparkes looks at this important period in the history of the Parkes Shire.
For a lot of Australians, their knowledge of Parkes’ role in the moon landing is due to watching a feature film, The Dish, made by Working Dog Productions (whose credits include The Castle, Thank God You’re Here, Have You Been Paying Attention and Utopia) While a classic example of brilliant Australian storytelling by film, it is not a documentary and thus took some creative liberties in telling this story. One of the aims of Parkes Library’s history blog is to accurately portray the amazing history of the Parkes Shire through thorough research.
The major players, from an Australian perspective, in bringing about a radio telescope in Parkes were:
In the movie The Dish much is made of the tension between American scientists and their Australian counterparts. While the movie exaggerates this for comedic effect – Ben Lam and David Cooke were Parkes locals who worked at The Dish and they deny any ill feeling – there was in fact some real tension between the two countries before building of the Dish had even started.
The plans to build a major new observatory for radio astronomy at Caltech [California Institute of Technology] had taken a number of twists and turns since Bowen sent off his proposal in May 1952. Fred White and the CSIRO Executive in Melbourne had kept an eye of these developments. White was careful not to stand in the way of Bowen and Bolton pursuing their careers overseas. On the other hand, White did not welcome what he saw as a blatant American raid on the most successful of CSIRO’s postwar research programs. The ‘brain drain’ of Australian scientific talent was developing into an issue of national concern. White urged Bowen to be patient and explore the possibility of whether a giant radio telescope could be built in Australia.
One interesting possibility had arisen earlier in 1952 when the Nuffield Foundation, one of Britain’s main philanthropic organisations, had agreed to fund half the cost of a giant dish proposed by Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank. Nuffield might be persuaded to fund a similar telescope in the southern hemisphere, especially if this was presented in the context of strengthening scientific ties within the British Commonwealth. In July 1952 Bowen wrote to sound out his former mentor Henry Tizard, who had just retired as scientific adviser to the British Ministry of Defence. Tizard was pessimistic about the likelihood of the Nuffield Foundation agreeing to fund a second large telescope, especially one outside Britain. Instead he suggested that Bowen try the British Dominion and Colonies Fund, part of the giant Carnegie Corporation in New York. Buoyed by these developments Bowen informed DuBridge that he still wished to take up the post at Caltech but, nevertheless, he felt it was his duty to investigate the possibility of having a large dish built in Australia. He asked DuBridge: ‘Would you mind, therefore, if I kept a foot in both camps and pushed both the Australian project and the one you have in mind?’ Taffy’s transatlantic network of wartime colleagues was producing valuable results.
P. Robertson (2017) pp.146-147
Robertson states that Taffy Bowen did write to the Carnegie Institution in Washington, corresponding with their president, Vannevar Bush. Bowen stressed that by providing funding for both an Australian and a Caltech radio telescopes that both would benefit from shared designs, collaboration and costs. Robertson points out that Bowen had good fortune with his timing. The British Dominion and Colonies Fund had suspended grants during the war years and with the interest accrued from the original endowment from the parent Carnegie Corporation, the fund “…was flush with money”. Bowen’s persistence paid off when in May 1954, the trustees of the Carnegie Corporation formally approved funding of US$250,000 to a giant radio telescope in Australia.
Robertson highlights the interesting twists and turns throughout this process:
The announcement of the Carnegie grant concluded a curious sequence of events. Late in 1951 Caltech had invited Bowen to propose a new astronomy centre consisting initially of a single large radio telescope. Bowen was to be director of the facility, Bolton his deputy and no doubt others in the Radiophysics group would have joined them along the way. Later, the proposal was broadened to involve two large telescopes, one at Caltech in the northern hemisphere, the other in Australia. As it turned out, the proposal to build a large American telescope staffed partly by Australians had changed, two years later, to an Australian telescope funded partly by American money! It is interesting to speculate on the course Australian radio astronomy might have taken if the original Caltech plan for a giant telescope had gone ahead.
P. Robertson (2017) p.148
While The Dish was still a concept, the land needed to be purchased. The CSIRO, in March 1958, began negotiations with ‘Austie’ Helm. Australia James Helm [NOTE: Helm was born on 30th July 1915 which was the inaugural Australia Day, sometimes called Foundation Day. In 1935 January 26 was called Australia Day in all Australian states and territories] was the owner of the property, ‘Kildare’ in the Goobang Valley. It is fair to say that the location is closer to Alectown, than Parkes – if one were to ask Austie Helm where he lived, he would have said that he lived in Alectown rather than Parkes. What is interesting is that according to the cadastral maps, the parish that the Dish is located in is called Houston. However this is a happy coincidence, the parish name has no connection with Houston, Texas – home of NASA’s Johnson Space Centre. Another interesting quirk is that the parish of Houston is found in the county of Kennedy. Again this has no link to US President John F. Kennedy, who first proposed that a man might be sent to the moon. Rather the county is named in honour of Australian explorer, Edmund Besley Court Kennedy.
Once all the administrative duties were taken care of, the building of the radio telescope was able to get underway. A collaborative effort that utilised expertise, materials and labour from Australia, USA, Great Britain and Germany. Former Parkes Champion Post editor, Ron Tindall, carefully took photographs during the building stage and this collection – including newspaper clippings and cartoons – has been donated to Parkes Shire Library’s Family & Local History Resource Room. What follows is only a fraction of all the photographs that Ron took and compiled into several photo albums.
A lot of speculation surrounds when the Parkes Radio Telescope first became known as ‘The Dish’. While the movie of the same name helped cement the moniker in common usage, it was referred to as ‘The Dish’ prior to 2000.
A quote from Dr Bowen’s address at the inauguration of the Parkes Radio Telescope. Source: Parkes Champion Post Thursday November 2, 1961, page 10
Peter Robertson explains how the Parkes Radio Telescope became involved in the defining moment of the 20th Century:
The same sensitivity and precision that have enabled the Parkes telescope to detect quasars and radio galaxies, the most distant objects in the Universe, have also made it a powerful instrument for tracking objects as close as any natural celestial body – manned and unmanned spacecraft.
The intensely competitive space race that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s led to a surge of interest in large dishes. Antennas similar in design and operation to a radio telescope were suddenly in great demand for monitoring and communicating with spacecraft. The Parkes telescope became involved in the space program in two ways. First, the telescope itself provided a model for the large tracking dishes constructed by NASA as part of its Deep Space Network. Second, the Parkes telescope became directly involved in tracking spacecraft, most notably with the Apollo missions to the Moon from 1969 to 1972.
P. Robertson (2017) pp. 301-302
However, it was far from a smooth ride as far as collaboration goes. Indeed John Bolton almost refused to collaborate with the Americans on their upcoming Apollo mission! Without a dramatic twist in the events, Australia (and Parkes) may not have played any part in the moon landing.
Although important in perfecting the technology of large dishes, the NASA-funded studies at Parkes were hardly the stuff of newspaper headlines. If there was any real prestige to be gained for Australia’s premier scientific instrument in the new space age, it would come from using the Parkes dish to track spacecraft. The first opportunity arose in 1962, when NASA announced that it would launch a series of Mariner probes to Venus and Mars and requested the use of Parkes for tracking during the encounter periods. With the Mariner IV mission to Mars, Parkes received some of the telemetry signals used to produce the first close-op photographs of the Martian surface. The results surprised astronomers for they revealed a heavily cratered planet with a cold thin atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide, certainly not the hospitable planet suggested by telescope observations from Earth. When NASA scientists published the findings of the Mariner IV mission, including the remarkably detailed photographs, no acknowledgement was made of the role played by Parkes. Giving due credit is a sensitive issue in any area of science. Both Bowen and Bolton were furious at the oversight.
P. Robertson (2017) p.305
Despite the slight, NASA surprised Australian scientists when in 1966 they proposed that Parkes be formally incorporated into its worldwide tracking network. Robertson goes into great detail as to why NASA suddenly needed Parkes’ telescope – and they were prepared to pay a hefty hourly rate as compensation. Robertson explains why Bolton initially refused:
Despite its attractions there were several drawbacks to the NASA proposal. On a scientific level, the experience of Mariner IV had already pointed out the dangers of becoming a junior partner in another organisation’s research program. Added to that, no enough time on the telescope was available to meet the mounting number of observing requests from Australian astronomers. An increasing number would have to miss out. Another problem was that under the existing arrangements any funding received by CSIRO from NASA would be absorbed into Treasury general revenue and not be channelled back to the Radiophysics Lab where it belonged. For these reasons, early in 1967 Bowen and Bolton agreed that they would turn down the NASA proposal.
The decision to not join the Deep Space Network seemed to spell the end of any further collaboration, but NASA persisted. In October 1968, during their stay in Pasadena, John and Letty were invited to a dinner party at the home of former Caltech colleague Bob Leighton. The other guests and the conversation had been carefully stage-managed – the plan was to persuade John to agree to the involvement of Parkes in the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The request was in a different league to the earlier work on tracking NASA unmanned spacecraft. To have refused the offer would have been highly damaging diplomatically. Bolton recalled:
“In contrast to our earlier approaches from NASA, on this occasion we would be directly involved with the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Our contacts with the JPL people went back to the mid-fifties and they’d helped us a lot. On several occasions during the commissioning of Parkes, components had broken down which couldn’t be replaced by any Australian supplier. All we had to do was call JPL and they would send whatever we needed on the next military aircraft or via the diplomatic bag from Washington. We owed them a lot. For a host of reasons it was obvious that we had to do the Apollo missions. We couldn’t say no when the lives of people were at stake.”
P. Robertson (2017) pp.306-307
ABC News compiled this report, explaining how important all Australian sites were in the moon landing. Originally broadcast on July 15th, 1969 this footage has recently become part of Wikimedia Commons media by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
An excellent report – including interviews with Ben Lam and David Cooke; and footage of John Bolton – which explains the details of the moon landing as it happened. Source: ABC News Australia YouTube Channel
Many people wouldn’t know about the amazing feat that Australian scientists played in the moon landing if not for the Working Dog feature film The Dish. The film, released in October 2000 after the Sydney Olympics, was the highest grossing Australian film of the year (Source: Australian Film Commission https://web.archive.org/web/20020329052944/http://afc.gov.au/GTP/mrboxausttop5.html). While the feel-good nature of the film means it stands the test of time, there were a few creative liberties taken, as is the case in making a feature film. The film was not intended to be a documentary, yet Working Dog still maintained a high level of accuracy. It was the idea that such a historic event was achieved in collaboration between NASA and scientists in outback Australia that attracted them to the idea in the first place.
During a meeting aimed at bouncing around ideas, Tom Gleisner told of how the radio telescope at Parkes had transmitted to the world the TV picture of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. The initial reaction from the others was along the lines of, “Nah, it can’t be true. We would have heard of this.”
P. Robertson (2017) p.4
The inaccuracies irk some people – notably those from Honeysuckle Creek, whose considerable role was ignored in the film. Mike Dinn, deputy director at the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in 1969, has a different perspective:
Does it bother him [Mike Dinn] that Parkes got the kudos? “Sort of… yes and no. They’ve had the wrong information up at the Parkes telescope for 20 years. I was visiting there regularly and I didn’t bother making an issue of it. I’ve got a webpage called “The Truth about The Dish. That summarises the inaccuracies but I go out of my way, number one, to say that movie was a hell of a lot better than nothing.
“Number two, it’s an entertaining movie. Three, it is about 70 or 80 per cent accurate, it’s just inaccurate in the one regard, which is major from my point of view, namely that television on the first day to the world was taken from the Honeysuckle dish not from Parkes.
“As it was, it was only eight minutes later that the moon moved into the view of the Parkes dish, the signal was appreciably better and both our signals were going into Sydney where the selection was made to on-send to Houston, The man in Sydney called Houston: “I’ve got a good picture from Parkes, do you want it?” And the man at Houston said: “Yes, that’s the best picture yet.”
(Source: Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/national/apollo-11-moon-landing-just-don-t-believe-the-movie-20190705-p524m2.html)
The Parkes Dish has been referenced in other places – most notably Parkes businesses and organisations that incorporate ‘The Dish’ as part of their logo. However it is not only locals who have made use of the iconic beauty of ‘The Dish’.
Video clip of Bon Jovi’s 2002 single “Everyday”. The Parkes Dish, along with local Wiradjuri men, can be seen at 0:53 in the clip. Source: YouTube
Parkes Shire Library would like to thank the following people and organisations for their assistance in making this post possible:
If you have stories, photographs or memories – that you are willing to share – about The Dish please contact Parkes Shire Library via firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be shared and kept for posterity on this blog. Alternatively you may leave comments on this page.
Wonderful blog entry! You’ve curated a fantastic range of resources that aren’t generally available to those unable to get to Parkes. Thank you so much! A fabulous read.
Thank you for reading our blog and for your feedback. One of the aims when creating this history blog was to make our amazing history accessible especially to those who cannot make it to Parkes. Thank you and all the best.