Fifty years on from the 1969 moon landing, the emotions still well up.
“I was driving home when I stopped on a two-lane road. It was pitch dark, and I got out of the car. I looked up at the moon, and it was like, ‘God, we got two people standing there right now!’ The emotions were very, very strong.”
Larry Haug had just finished his shift as a data systems supervisor at one of NASA’s tracking stations at Fresnedillas de la Oliva, west of Madrid in Spain.
Madrid was one of three sites, where the American space agency had built radio telescopes to track the progress of its human space missions.
“It was pride,” says Haug down the line from his home in the USA.
From the moment President Kennedy announced in 1961 that America was going to the moon, they moved fast.
“We had nothing. We hadn’t even put our first man in space,” says Haug. “And in eight years we landed two people on the moon. It was incredible, what we had done.”
An American story of global proportions
The Apollo space program is an American story. Most definitely. It’s a Cold War story, too — of a Free World against a closed, communist world.
And in that sense, it’s a global story.
At any rate, the Americans couldn’t have done it without the rest of the world. Not even without the Russians. They were the first to put a person in space.
That was the spur in America’s hind. That was politics.
From a technical point of view, the Americans drew on expertise from around the world. Technicians and engineers from Europe and Australia, companies in the UK. And those tracking stations, where local technicians worked side-by-side with the Americans.
The other two main sites were at Goldstone in the Mojave Desert, USA, and at Honeysuckle Creek, which is near the Australian capital, Canberra.
It was the tip of a global network that over the years had included stations in Kano, Nigeria, in the Pacific (Guam) and Bermuda, Antigua, Ascension Island, and ships – all hooked up to control in Houston, Texas.
Together they delivered 24-hour coverage from the near side of the moon to the Earth.
“The moon tracks around with the Earth from east to west, and it takes between 12 and 14 hours to make that transit,” explains Haug. “When you look up at the sky, you don’t always see the moon. The people in Houston couldn’t see it when we were seeing it.”
Madrid was the primary station when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon (while Michael Collins observed from the Command Module above).
As with the others, Madrid tracked the astronauts’ telemetry data – “Armstrong’s heart rate went up to 120, 130 as he was getting ready to land,” recalls Haug.
In fact, TV cameras caught sight of this and streamed it live. “We got a reprimand for that because that was medical data and should not have been released!” he adds.
“And when I got off work that night,” he says, “we turned everything over to Honeysuckle Creek for the first step on the moon.”
One giant leap for TV
Who cares whether astronauts ever actually landed on the moon, or whether it was faked in some hidden American studio?
If you were in Australia in 1969, all you knew was that those legendary television pictures were being sent around the world via the Australian bush.
There was Honeysuckle Creek and the Parkes Radio Telescope.
Parkes was brought into the loop about a month before the landing once it had become clear from the flight plan that Australia would be in the moon’s line of sight for the astronauts’ “giant leap for mankind.”
Gillian Schoenborn worked in the communications section at Honeysuckle Creek.
Schoenborn and her male colleagues passed reams of paper messages, with mission instructions, telemetry and medical updates, through to John Saxon, Ken Lee and Mike Dinn in the operations room.
She had recently transferred first from the Navy and then a somewhat “boring” job working with Earth orbital data at Orroral Valley. Apollo, by contrast, was about people. All the world’s people.
“It was monumental. No two ways about it. At the time, perhaps, we didn’t see how significant it would be, because when you’re living history, you don’t realize it, do you?”
Schoenborn’s being modest. Genuinely.
The world knew exactly the significance of the 1969 moon landing, and they were watching it live.
“Everyone in the world was excited,” says Colin Mackellar.
Mackellar runs a trove of Apollo history at HoneysuckleCreek.net.
He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to community history in the 2019 Australia Day Honors.
By the time he was 12 years old, Mackellar had followed NASA’s Mercury and Gemini missions. They laid the groundwork for Apollo and inspired Mackellar to study science.
“In the late 70s, I hoped that human missions to the planets would happen soon and that there might be a need for geologists to analyse samples brought back,” he says. “But that didn’t happen.”
Mackellar became a minister in the Australian Anglican church instead.
A near ending dream
“But the other thing,” says Schoenborn, “was that we thought Apollo 11 was just the first. We thought they’re going to do it forever.”
Schoenborn left Honeysuckle Creek two months after the 1969 moon landing to travel the globe, ending up in the UK and Germany.
Apollo didn’t last much longer after that. The program was shut down in 1972.
“It was the biggest mistake to stop Apollo,” says Haug. “Looking back, we had Vietnam. That was hugely expensive, and something had to go.”
Haug says there’s a history of such pragmatism in the US government.
“They did it with Apollo, the Shuttle program, and they’re doing it with the International Space Station,” he says. “They don’t have the foresight that science needs.”
Alumni from the Spanish and Australian tracking stations meet up for anniversaries of the first moon landing, including this year’s fiftieth – they say, it’s like family.
“All the tracking stations were tied together in real-time by voice,” says Mackellar. “It was like a virtual community, long before the internet. And there’s still a feeling of their having worked on a great endeavour together.”
And some sadness. Schoenborn remembers the 25th anniversary well.
“It was eerie. To have experienced all that vibrancy,” she says. “And then it was just a hillside with a slab of concrete.”
In 1981, the dish from Honeysuckle Creek was moved to nearby Tidbinbilla, where it became part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.
For Mackellar, a sense of inspiration lives on.
“We can be cynical and say it was political. But it wasn’t so much about beating the Russians. And it wasn’t just that the Americans had done it. People — humankind — had done it,” says Mackellar. “It gave people a great, peaceful cause.”