by Duncan Murray
SYDNEY, July 20 (Xinhua) -- Sunday July 21 marks 50 years since mankind first set foot on the moon, with Neil Armstrong’s "one giant leap" inspiring millions of people and representing a great achievement for humanity.
However, this milestone may have gone unseen had it not been for a remote observatory near the town of Parkes in rural Australia, operated by a team from the country’s leading scientific body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Rising above the dry grass and sheep paddocks of regional New South Wales, the 64-meter diameter Parkes radio telescope, also known as The Dish, was one of three observatory stations in Australia tasked by NASA with relaying signals from the moon landing.
Of the three, it was the radio telescope at Parkes which proved the most pivotal in maintaining a clear connection as the moon passed above the southern hemisphere.
One of the men operating The Dish on that day was the now 87 year-old David Cooke, who as a receiver engineer was responsible for installing, testing and making sure the receivers that NASA had provided were working correctly.
Cooke told Xinhua that in many ways, July 21, 1969 felt like a normal day at work.
“On the day I guess I was feeling a little bit apprehensive but I was fairly confident that things had worked well up till then so why shouldn’t they work well today,” he said.
With the Apollo 11 lunar lander safely touched down, the team at Parkes tilted the giant dish towards the horizon to wait for the moon's appearance.
However, with the dish tilted as far as it could go, a sudden and violent windstorm hit Parkes, gusting winds of up to 110km/h slammed into the telescope, straining it’s enormous gears and causing the control room to shudder.
“In doing normal operations in the astronomical programs if we had winds of that strength we would have to immediately raise the telescope up so as to not cause damage,” Cooke said.
“But the director at the time John Bolton understood the workings of the telescope and he judged that it could withstand the buffeting of the wind and so he told the driver to keep the telescope trained on that point in the horizon and wait for the signal.”
Thankfully, the wind abated and the signal from the Apollo crew came through strong and clear.
For almost five hours, Parkes relayed the historic images first to Sydney, then to Houston in the United States for an international telecast to be viewed by 600 million people.
“My main job was to keep an eye on the signal strength coming through, but I was able to also watch the TV screen on which the picture was displayed as Armstrong came down the ladder and afterwards when they were on the moon,” Cooke said.
Today the Parkes radio telescope remains not just functional but continues to play a part in scientific research under the watchful eye of operation scientist John Sarkissian.
“Over the years we’ve upgraded the telescope extensively so that today it is over 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was built, we’re still doing great science here, still making discoveries, and still developing new technologies,” John Sarkissian told Xinhua.
One of the recent innovations by the team at Parkes was a multibeam system, essentially incorporating 19 receivers into one, which now sits on the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou province, China.
“It's doing great work and we’re collaborating with China in that for the next generation of radio telescopes,” Sarkissian said.
With the future of astronomy and global scientific collaboration looking bright, mankind can remember the Apollo 11 mission with pride and wonder what’s next.
“The program showed just what humankind could do in cooperation,” Cooke said.
“It’s really quite extraordinary if you think about it, which I did probably not so much during the event, but afterwards when I went down and had a look at the telescope and the moon, and realized what had happened.”