Reid story brings moon landing closer to home
Stories about the first men on the moon continue to attract our attention. Those of us who were alive at the time probably remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the Apollo 11 moon mission’s lunar module Eagle landed on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC.
This story is on screen at the moment in the moving film First Man starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the bloke who famously took that “one giant leap for mankind”. Now we have another book about this historic event, and it’s a bold and quirky one at that.
Honeysuckle Creek focuses on the work of Tom Reid, the director of the space-tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek, in the high country south of Canberra. To write it, politician turned author Andrew Tink had to learn to understand the intricate workings of radar, dishes, transmitters, receivers and computers in the 1950s and 60s.
In doing so, he was helped by Reid’s surviving colleagues, especially from his Royal Navy and Honeysuckle Creek station days. Now in their 70s and 80s, these former colleagues were invaluable in fleshing out this fascinating story. Reid died in 2010.
However, the author is also indebted to someone who has never worked at a tracking station and who is neither an engineer nor a technician. Colin Mackellar, who has spent years developing a website dedicated to the history and workings of the station and dish at Honeysuckle Creek, is the technical adviser to this book. He is held in high regard by Honeysuckle’s surviving engineers and technicians.
Tink highlights Honeysuckle Creek’s pivotal role in the first landing and walk on the moon. As this book makes clear, this tracking facility was far more important in covering Apollo 11 than the better-known radio telescope based at Parkes Observatory in rural NSW. In doing so, Tink demonstrates that the popular 2000 film The Dish was essentially a work of fiction. Indeed, without Reid’s Australian tracking station Tom Reid stands next to prime minister John Gorton (far left) in the operations control room at Honeysuckle Creek, less than four hours before Neil Armstrong’s moon walk the world might never have seen and heard Armstrong’s immortal words.
Importantly, Honeysuckle Creek transmitted the monumental footage featuring Armstrong and fellow American astronaut Buzz Aldrin to a worldwide audience of more than 600 million people.
Reid and the tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek were thus responsible for broadcasting some of the most watched and most important images in human history.
Without the enthusiastic co-operation and support of Reid’s elder daughter, Margaret Reid, this inspirational book could not have been written. In addition to spending many days talking about her reticent Glaswegian fa- ther, she allowed the author unfettered access to documents, tapes and photographs. Of more than a score of high-quality black-and-white photographs that adorn this book, two standouts are one of the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station and dish dusted in snow a few days before Apollo 11’s launch in July 1969 and another taken less than four hours before Armstrong’s walk on the moon. In this photo, Reid is seen explaining the intricacies of the operations control room to John Gorton, on the maverick Liberal prime minister’s unannounced VIP visit to the tracking station.
The most revealing photograph is a fine portrait of Reid standing to the far left of the entire all-Australian Honeysuckle Creek team that he led so successfully during that history-making Apollo 11 mission.
In crafting this important contribution to the story of Australia’s role in space exploration, and to the significant role of Reid in particular, the photos and text of Honeysuckle Creek complement each other beautifully.
Fittingly, in April 1989, the US government presented Reid with NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. Until the publication of this book, Reid had been one of our nation’s unsung heroes.
Tink is to be praised for bringing his remarkable story to public light at a time when there’s now talk of crewed missions to Mars in the nottoo-distant future.
is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 40 books.