Reid story brings moon land­ing closer to home

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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.

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