15Jul2019

How Moon Landing Was Achieved Via Carnarvon Tracking Station

Tito Teraci petting a wallaby at the Carnarvon tracking station.

PHOTO: Tito Teraci was an electronics technician at the Carnarvon Tracking Station, 900km north of Perth. (Supplied: Tito Teraci)

It is a piece of Australian history never heard — how a TV repair man, a waitress and a young Croatian migrant helped the US win the space race and put man on the Moon.

Half a century ago, when repairman-turned-electronics technician Tito Teraci arrived in the sleepy West Australian town of Carnarvon in 1964, the only sign of life was a stray dog wandering the streets. Five years later, it had become the critical point of contact with Neil Armstrong and his crew when they got the all clear to head into space on their historic journey.

Astronaut walking on the moon's surface
PHOTO: It is 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission put Buzz Aldrin and his fellow astronauts on the Moon. (Supplied: NASA/Tito Teraci)

A tiny township perched on WA’s coral coast best known for fresh seafood and mangoes, Carnarvon sits almost directly on the other side of the Earth to NASA’s launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

When built, it hosted the largest tracking station outside mainland USA and had the most accurate radar system in the southern hemisphere.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Mr Teraci was one of hundreds of staff who worked at the tracking station, which was an integral part of NASA’s manned Moon project.

“I couldn’t imagine [it], you know, for a humble TV technician to go into supporting the great event of putting man on the Moon … was out of this world,” he said.

“To think that little a little place like Carnarvon had done all [that] preparation work to put man on the Moon was unbelievable.

A smiling Tito Teraci poses for a photo against a black background.
PHOTO: Tito Teraci said nothing would surpass being part of such a historic event. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

“To realize that all our effort had all come together and that the final moment was when he stepped onto the Moon.”

Tracking station gave women chance to forge careers

A black and white picture of Lauri Glocke smiling while working at a control panel.
PHOTO: Lauri Glocke went from working as a waitress to an equipment operator at the base. (Supplied: Lauri Glocke)

Established by the Australian and US governments, the Carnarvon Tracking Station (CRO) officially opened in 1964 amid the Cold War race between Russia and America to be the first on the lunar surface.

WA has the longest history of involvement in the space program of any Australian state or territory, beginning in 1961 tracking the Project Mercury missions — NASA’s early program to put a man into orbit around the Earth.

For Lauri Glocke, who was aged just 15 when the Carnarvon base opened, it provided an extraordinary opportunity.

A head and shoulders shot of Lauri Glocke smiling.

PHOTO: Ms Glocke convinced the station to hire and train her despite not completing Year 12. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

“I used to be a waitress and used to serve those guys [from NASA] … and I had made a lot of money from their tips because they were American,” she said.

Ms Glocke applied for a job as an equipment operator at the station, but was initially knocked back because she did not have her junior certificate, having left high school before she completed Year 10.

But she challenged the interviewer and promised she could do the job without the certificate.

View of planet Earth from Apollo 8 spacecraftPHOTO: Apollo 8, from which this stunning image of Earth was taken, was part of the Moon program. (Supplied: NASA/Tito Teraci)

“We had a little bit of banter back and forth and in the end he said, ‘Oh okay then, you can have the job and we’ll see how you go’,” she said.

“So that’s how I got the job. I talked my way into it.”

Croatian migrant Kathy Franin, a former electronic equipment operator, said there were quite a few women working at the NASA tracking station.

Woman smiles with black backdropPHOTO: Kathy Franin says female workers were treated well at the Carnarvon station. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

“We were treated well with a lot of respect and a lot of support, and also they trained us well,” she said.

“For me to work for NASA was as far as the Moon is from Earth”.

No water, no power, complex science

Old-fashioned cars line the streets in front of a Wesfarmers store.
PHOTO: Carnarvon was a “sleepy little town” of around 2,000 people in the 1960s. (Supplied: State Library of WA)

Before the influx of workers on the tracking station, Carnarvon was a remote, outback town with few facilities.

A former radio frequency specialist at the tracking station, Trevor Mosel, said the operation had to compensate for the lack of facilities.

“Carnarvon Tracking Station had its own power station,” he said.

We could never rely on the town’s power because any outage would have been catastrophic, absolutely catastrophic.”

Trevor Mosel smiles posing for a photo against a black backdrop.PHOTO: Trevor Mosel was a radio frequency operator in Carnarvon. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Barb King, who worked in administration at the tracking station, recalled not only enjoying the added benefit of air-conditioning at work, but running water — something she did not have at home.

“It was a very sleepy little town and for me it was fine, because it was my hometown,” she said.

“But it must have been quite a cultural shock for those arriving from the US, UK and other countries.”

Woman smiles with black backdropPHOTO: Carnarvon local Barb King secured a job in administration at the tracking station. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

NASA estimated 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the Moon.

But despite its involvement in the cutting edge technology of the 20th century, the town had yet to receive television.

Staff from the nearby OTC Earth Station, which had been built to provide high-speed data and voice communications for the rapidly advancing space technology, set up a temporary feed to a number of small black and white monitors in the local picture theatre.

A large satellite dish at the Carnarvon Tracking Station pointed skywards.PHOTO: The Carnarvon Tracking Station measured complex telemetry data from space. (Supplied: State Library of WA)

For many people in the town, watching man step on the Moon was the very first time they had watched TV.

The technicians on duty at the tracking station on the day had no such access.

But the ingenuity of the crew soon came up with a solution, as they routed the signal to a piece of test equipment with a tiny green screen.

An aerial photo of the station showing the large dish and buildings at the station.PHOTO: The tracking station was at the cutting edge of space science in the 1960s. (Supplied: CSIRO)

“All of a sudden I just, I was looking at the screen and drew back and went ‘Oh my gosh!’,” former equipment operator Colin Foster said.

“And there’s about 30 or 40 heads all around me … all trying to view this 5-inch or 6-inch green screen, as there’s the boys walking around on the Moon.”

How Carnarvon sent the ‘Okay, go!’ message

The Apollo 11 mission launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.PHOTO: The Apollo 11 mission launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Supplied: NASA)

The Carnarvon Tracking Station was an important link from Earth to the Gemini and Apollo manned space missions from 1965 to 1972.

Spacecraft which launched from Cape Canaveral, known as Cape Kennedy during that time, passed close to Carnarvon on their first orbits around the Earth.

It was at this point that hundreds of pieces of telemetry data — the pressure and temperature inside the craft, astronauts’ heartbeats and respiratory rates, and available fuel and oxygen — were relayed back to Houston as an essential check on the crew’s wellbeing before the final thrust into space.

A wide shot of men in a communications room with controls and monitors.PHOTO: Along every step of the Apollo 11 mission, the Carnarvon trackers were hard at work. (Supplied: Tito Teraci)

The Carnarvon trackers were the first to know if a solid orbit had been achieved and were able to relay all information to Houston for assessment that the craft was ready.

In turn, Carnarvon sent the green light to the spacecraft with a simple message: “Okay, go!”

Mr Foster said it was not an exact science, and if they were just one or two degrees out the dish would be looking at blank space.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon's surface in 1969.PHOTO: Along with the astronauts, the crew at Carnarvon experienced the highs and lows of the space program.(Supplied: NASA/Tito Teraci)

“The 9-metre dish would be scanning the sky back and forth, trying to find the spacecraft, then on your scope you might see a blip,” he said.

“There’s a signal, yep there it is, getting stronger.

“Then all of a sudden you’d say ‘Right, there!’ And lock onto the spacecraft and you’re in auto-track mode, and that’s like ‘Phew, We’ve made it’.”

Equally nerve-wracking was the process of tracking the spacecraft safely back to Earth.

The Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum viewed from a dronePHOTO: The tracking station lives on today as the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum. (ABC News: Chris Lewis)

Carnarvon was the last point of communication before the silent minutes of re-entry and splashdown.

“There’s a very narrow band that they can come in to,” Mr Foster said.

“If they come in too steep the gs [g-forces] will crush them. If they go too shallow, they’ll skip out and disappear into space.”

The crew of the Apollo 11 mission Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin posing for a photo.PHOTO: The crew of the Apollo 11 mission (from left) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. (Supplied: NASA)

Sadness and collective breath-holding

From 1961 WA, through the Muchea and Carnarvon tracking stations, was heavily involved in the Mercury and Gemini manned space projects and in 1967 it commenced support for the first mission in the final push to the Moon.

The crew at Carnarvon experienced the highs and lows of the space program together with the astronauts.

A view of planet Earth with the moon in foreground from the Apollo 8 spacecraft.PHOTO: The Apollo 8 mission in 1968 led to this stunning picture of Earth from the Moon horizon’s. (Supplied: NASA/Tito Teraci)

During the rehearsals stage of Apollo 1 in 1967, Mr Teraci woke to a notice on his door.

“They’d used the actual teletype thing that informed us that the accident had happened, and on the bottom somebody had scribbled ‘No simulation tonight’,” Mr Teraci said.

Apollo 1 had ended in disaster when a cabin fire during testing killed all three crew members on board.

The three-man crew of Apollo 1, posing in their pace suits for a NASA photo.PHOTO: The crew of Apollo 1 (from left) Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee all died in the fire. (Supplied: NASA)

Years later Apollo 13, scheduled to be the third Moon landing, caused extreme tension for all involved after an oxygen tank explosion on board.

“I heard those famous words ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem’ and I went woah … what? We’ve got a problem? That doesn’t exist in Apollo,” Mr Foster said.

“We could hear what the guys were saying, the distress they were in.”

The Moon landing was aborted and the crew, after much hardship onboard, landed safely back on Earth.

The Carnarvon Tracking Station continued to provide data and voice communications support until 1975.

Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin unfurls a long sheet of foil on the moon in front of Apollo 11's lunar module, the Eagle.PHOTO: Buzz Aldrin unfurls a Solar Wind Collector in front of Apollo 11’s lunar module, the Eagle. (Supplied: NASA)

Ms Glocke said although she did not fully appreciate how fantastic it was at the time, looking back she realised how incredible their work had been.

“I’m now able to pass all that information on in those stories to my grandchildren,” she said.

Ms King said her work there remained a unique part of her life.

“When you see films of lift-offs and things like that, you still get goose bumps,” she said.

Buzz Aldrin takes his first step towards the surface of the Moon from Apollo 11's lunar module.PHOTO: Aldrin’s first step towards the Moon’s surface would not have been possible without Carnarvon’s help. (Supplied: NASA)
Story Credit: ABC News
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