Collective Universes

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Words || Annie Paterson

A free-to-air television channel runs a back-to-back showing of Apollo 13 and Gravity. This month’s edition of the Stamp Bulletin springs into mailboxes sporting a multitude of mint-commissioned NASA memorabilia. R.E.M.’s ‘Man On The Moon’ and a fusion of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Space Oddity’ make for a tuneful backdrop to a time of collective wonderment and nostalgia. 50 years ago today, mankind took their first steps on the moon.

It’s also a pretty big time of year for my family. Not only is my grandfather on the cusp of 88, but back in his thirties he was involved in the Sydney branch of telecommunications administration for the Apollo 11 mission. He had a front row seat. He was right there when it all happened

My mum calls me downstairs to the television. “You should be watching this,” she says, with sincerity verging on solemnity; “You’re right in the middle of it.” I take a wary seat, preparing myself for what I fear will be a condescending editorial on the slings and arrows of adolescence…but when the gaudy swarm of advertisements abates, it’s a news special. A spidery, tinfoil-wrapped spacecraft floats across the screen, and words that have passed my lips far too many times to count appear at the bottom of the display: Apollo 11. Peter Overton ushers me into the narrative of lunar orbit and alarmingly primitive computer technology, and I’m transfixed

Then it happens. The crackling black-and-white footage is on the screen—the lunar module, the extended ladder, the astronaut in all his suited glory. I gasp and scramble blindly for my mum’s waiting arm, and I can hear the tears in her wavering breath. I’d seen the video before, of course, and I’d heard the narration: but this was experiencing it all for the first time. 

Sitting there on the couch with my mum beside me, absolutely motionless, watching Neil Armstrong take his first footsteps on the surface of the moon all the way back in 1969, knowing that at the ripe old age of six my mother had gotten up stupidly early that very morning of that very year to watch that exact footage as it was distributed…and there I was, watching it with her, gripped by the same sense of rapture, grasping onto her shoulder as I listened to Buzz Aldrin speak those unbelievably famous words

It was something so much more than magic.

I cried, and I couldn’t quite stop. My mum held me, and we cried together.

The Apollo 11 moon landing mission has gone through three generations of my family, and it’s beyond anything else: there is nothing that unites my family with the rest of the world in quite the same way. You could ask my grandfather about it, but what happened that July all those years ago he still treats as nothing more than a day’s work (“a small cog in a great heap of wheels” he remarks, deferring our excitement). For as long as I can remember, however, his story has been my favourite to tell—“Da worked on the moon landing!” “Da shook the astronaut’s hand!” “Da was involved with the telecommunications of Apollo 11!”—long before I actually understood what ‘telecommunications’ meant. I could never quite comprehend how something so astoundingly universal could be so palpably close to home; as far as I knew, though, I loved it. And I fell in love with it all over again watching the news that night.

When I woke up that morning, I really didn’t think I’d end up going to bed having cried in utter astonishment and awe over the moon landing. Although objectively speaking it was little more than routine treatment of an anniversary, watching that footage, I had never felt closer to my six-year-old mum, or to my thirty-eight-year-old grandfather, or to the hearts and minds of a world that had only ever known it’s own surface. I re-realised in that moment exactly why the human race explores: why insatiable curiosity is knitted into our DNA, and why we devote our lives to learning about the stuff we were born from. We are such infinitesimally miniature parts of this universe, but to us, we are each our own universe. And, as universes do, we expand, and we spend our lives expanding—growing and nurturing and flourishing, assimilating ideas and behaviours and expanding those too, overlapping, colliding, and creating.

50 years ago today, thanks to everything that led up to just one small step, our collective universes expanded that little bit more.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, my grandfather was an engineer with the Postmaster-General’s (PMG) Department, as a part of a team that provided telecommunications to the NASA tracking stations near Canberra, specifically for space missions.

For the Apollo moon missions, three tracking stations equally spaced around the world were required to be able to communicate continuously with spacecraft whilst on their way to, and on the surface of, the moon, due to the rotation of the Earth. These stations were located in Honeysuckle Creek (Canberra), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Goldstone (California), and were all linked to Mission Control in Houston (Texas).

As the first moon landing was an historic event, television pictures were to be sent back to Earth so the whole world could watch the landing and the moon walks. To get the best quality pictures, the Parkes radio telescope dish was used, as it was bigger than the one near Canberra. Upon receiving the television signals at Parkes, they were relayed to Sydney, where they were decoded (without which there would have been no television picture!) and sent on to Honeysuckle Creek, and then to the US—which meant Australians saw the moon landing on television a fraction of a second earlier than the rest of the world!

It would be best not to revisit the hour at which my mum and her sisters were dragged out of bed to watch.

During that time, my grandfather was in charge of the transmission planning team who produced allocation diagrams for phone channels between Sydney (at the Paddington Overseas Telecommunications Centre) and Honeysuckle Creek. NASA then took charge of the channels between Honeysuckle Creek and the US. In doing so, Da worked very closely with Charlie Goodman (the NASA TV engineer who was stationed in Sydney to control the television signal relays for the mission), who became a very close friend of the family—I’ve even heard it said he was quite partial to my Nanna’s baked lamb dinners!

After the success of Apollo 11, the members of the PMG team were presented with certificates—Apollo Achievement Awards—honouring their dedicated service to the mission. The moon landing itself actually took place on my grandfather’s birthday—July the 20th—so it is something he will never forget.

Nor is it something the rest of the world ever will.