More than 600 million people watched in July, 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his famous small step for man and giant leap for mankind.
That anyone was able to watch, let alone hundreds of thousands of people around the world who happened to be near a TV that eventful day, was thanks largely to an outpost in rural Australia.
Those momentous events in the sky have been burned in the collective memory in the 50 years since. The somewhat less eventful moments on the ground were dramatized in an 2000 Australian film The Dish, which, while fondly remembered by some, hardly set the world on fire.
Watching it today, though, in the media frenzy surrounding the Apollo 11 anniversary, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of nostalgia. It’s to be reminded of a kinder, gentler time, when a previously thought-to-be-unthinkable achievement in science and engineering could help lift the collective human spirit.
“I helped the world watch the Moon landing,” radio receiver engineer David Cooke, the man who helped get those famous images on to TV sets around the world, told BBC’s World Service earlier this week, on the eve of the Apollo moon landing’s 50th anniversary loomed.
Curiously, Cooke’s role was omitted from The Dish; the film’s central character Cliff Buxton, played by New Zealand actor Sam Neill, was a fictional character, nicknamed “The Dishmaster,” the radio satellite dish’s chief engineer. Like much of the film, much of what the Dishmaster did and did not do was made up — if not Hollywood, exactly, an Aussie version of Hollywood.
The somewhat fictionalized story of the Parkes Observatory’s role in relaying live television of man’s first steps on the moon during the Apollo mission in 1969 is still compelling, though, in reminding us of a time when digital technology and social media didn’t connect the world in nanoseconds, for better and for worse.
The radio telescope outside the town of Parkes, pop. 15,000, in Australia’s New South Wales still stands to this day. Telescope technology has advanced since the late 1960s, but even these
aging radio observatories serve a useful purpose, when they’re in remote places where the skies remain free of carbon emissions and the ambient light of civilization.
Today, TV signals are relayed by satellites — where TV remains at all. The wired, connected world is shifting online, where it may soon be possible to view the lunar surface in real time, round the clock, night and day. It’s only a matter of time before science places a live camera on the moon, so everyone with a screen
As the late American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in 1968, when the first orbital view of our blue planet was photographed from the vantage point of the moon as a small blue dot, thanks to Apollo 8 — the first manned spacecraft to reach the moon and circle it, without landing — “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”
A little purple, perhaps, especially when viewed in the cynicism of our age.
The Dish, fictionalized though it may have been, took a more working class view.
“This is a chance for science to be daring,” Neill’s character Cliff Buxton says in the film.
Later, when a cyclone — a sudden windstorm in real life, but exaggerated for dramatic effect — threatens to wreak havoc with the radio telescope’s critical transmission, Buxton gives it the old Aussie.
“We sit here on our arses for five bloody days. Not a breath of bloody wind. Then, on cue, out of nowhere, just when it’s our turn, a bloody cyclone decides to park its arse on us. Um . . . I’m sorry, lads. I just might go check some bloody thing.”
Not poetry, perhaps, but it fits the tone of the times. The Apollo moon landing marked a turning point in human history, either way.