Traces: Carnarvon Tracking Station
ON 26 NOVEMBER 1966, a large crowd gathered in Carnarvon’s town centre. It was an impressive turnout for the usually quiet coastal community with a population of 2000. Broadcast equipment was assembled in the sweltering afternoon sun, roads were closed and traffic blocked off. Three television cameras were stationed along the main street, waiting patiently for a signal to begin filming. Carnarvon was about to witness an unusual family reunion that would make history as Australia’s first televised overseas broadcast.
Located 900km north of Perth in Western Australia, Carnarvon is a sleepy town that in the 1960s operated two cutting-edge space age technology satellite stations. One, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) Satellite Earth Station, was built in 1966 to improve communications between the existing Carnarvon NASA Tracking Station and the USA. Located 6km from the town centre, the OTC’s Cassegrain horn antenna was affectionately named the “sugar scoop” due to its unusual parabolic shape. It was designed to transmit and receive signals from communication satellites.
The overseas broadcast was made possible after a geostationary satellite, launched by NASA in October, failed to reach its intended orbit. As the satellite began drifting westwards across the Indian Ocean, it was used to establish a temporary link between the OTC Station at Carnarvon and the Goonhilly Downs Earth Station in the UK.
The historic broadcast was entitled
Down Under Comes Up Live and featured three British–Australian couples – Frank and Pauline Vinton, Alan and Jean Gilham, and Les and Laura Brightwell – talking with their families in the BBC’s London studio.
The broadcast was jointly produced by the ABC and the BBC and ran for about 12 minutes. Despite the occasional video lag, the broadcast was a success. For a town that would not have television until 1972, this live overseas broadcast was nothing short of exceptional. However, it’s the NASA Tracking Station that Carnarvon is most famous for.
It operated from 1964 to 1975 and made vital contributions to NASA’s Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. Located 10km south of the town, the station boasted equipment that was part of NASA’s Manned Space Flight Network, the Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Network and the Solar Particle Alert Network. With this range of antennae and equipment, Carnarvon was NASA’s largest tracking station outside mainland USA. At its height, it had a staff of 220.
Australia was a favoured location for tracking stations. US spacecraft would pass Australia during their first orbit after launch. Carnarvon lies almost directly on the other side of Earth to NASA’s launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. This ideal location allowed staff at Carnarvon’s facility to monitor spacecraft, provide technical support and relay communication back to Houston.
In the years preceding the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Carnarvon’s NASA Tracking Station assisted NASA’s Surveyor Program: remotely controlled missions to monitor and survey landing sites on the Moon. During the Apollo crewed missions, Carnarvon was the last tracking station to communicate with astronauts before they left Earth’s orbit. The trackers oversaw the wellbeing of astronauts by monitoring available fuel and oxygen and the astronaut’s respiratory rates, communicating all telemetry data back to Houston.
Carnarvon’s NASA Tracking Station was often the astronaut’s last point of communication upon re-entry and before splashdown. It was responsible for both tracking the spacecraft safely back to Earth and communicating with Houston.
The tracking station closed in 1975 after 11 years of supporting NASA’s missions. The site was cleared and the antennae dismantled and relocated.
In 2012, the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum opened at the OTC Earth Station site to commemorate Australia’s vital contribution to helping the USA win the Space Race.