British Columbia

Q&A: Vancouver astronomer who helped broadcast images of 1969 moon landing reflects on 'miracle'

Today marks 50 years since Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind." Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle and took their first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.

'That's a man on the moon. I can't bloody believe it,' says radio astronomer.

Jasper Wall at work with the Parkes Observatory radio telescope in Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, in the late 1960s. (Submitted by Jasper Wall)

Today marks 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle to take the first steps on the moon and a Vancouver professor who helped broadcast the event's stunning images still marvels at the day. 

As millions of people around the world were glued to  their television sets on July 20, 1969, Jasper Wall, now a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia, was working on his PhD in Australia at the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales. 

The observatory's satellite dish was used to receive live television images of the Apollo 11 Moon landing for NASA.

Wall spoke with Jason D'Souza, guest host of CBC's On the Coast, about what he remembers of that historic day.

Jasper Wall at the foot of the 64-metre radio telescope dish that received images of the first moonwalk in 1969. (Parkes Observatory )

How did the Parkes Observatory come to be involved in one of the most iconic broadcasts of all time?

The initial contact was made in California where my boss was hobnobbing with his friends [from NASA]. He said, 'Any way we can support Apollo 11 ... we will do so.' Then he came back to Australia and it turned out that NASA did indeed want us to help support the mission.

They had already built a 64-metre dish, but it wasn't quite complete. They had a 33-foot dish which was a bit too small. And then there was Parkes. We were the backup to the backup [dish].

Our telescope was four times bigger ... [with a] much better signal. So Houston stuck with us. We saw the whole show a second or so before the rest of the world.

 

Everyone was obviously glued to their TV set. But what was happening behind the scenes? 

The dish was resting with its rim on the ground waiting for the moon to rise so that it would come into the beam of the telescope and we'd get some signals. But it was turbulent winter weather ... and the winds were gusting. This dish had never been operated under those circumstances.

In this July 1969 file photo, Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks by the footpad of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. (AP/Photo, NASA, file) (The Associated Press)

Suddenly, a horrendous gust [of wind] hit the dish just before the the moonwalk. This was a gust of 100 kilometres per hour! The normal dish limit is 20 kilometres per hour. So this was way outside our limits. It hit the dish and there was an enormous crash as the dish rocked onto [the back] of its zenith gears. And then ... another horrendous crash! The dish came forward onto the normal face of its gears and the whole control tower shook like a jelly.

We were doing engineering [throughout the broadcast] to try to strengthen the tower. We carried on, but it was like that throughout the whole mission. We operated the dish under circumstances which nobody else should dream of operating at. And we made it.

The large zenith telescope in Parkes, Australia, that Jasper Wall helped control the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (CSIRO)

Did you did you have a sense of just how many people were tuning into this broadcast feed? 

Not really. We were concentrating on our jobs. It was, for us, standard practice to be in the control room where we lived and breathed.... We were essentially in a home environment except for the fact that there was this crew of NASA people staring at us in the corner wondering if these hillbillies actually knew what they were doing. No pressure! We were, in fact, higher tech than they were, which rather astonished them. 

During that day, did you have a moment to take in what was happening?

[There's] one or two moments in which you think ... this is all going okay ... and then look at that little black and white scanning image up there. That's a man on the moon. I can't bloody believe it.

Looking back, what will you remember most?

I think I'll remember that gust of wind ... the noise ... the crash ... the shaking. But then, of course, I'll remember seeing those black and white scan images. Neil Armstrong's heart rate of 112. How could you do that? Could you keep your heart rate that low in that position. Amazing. The entirety of the thinking-through and the testing to make that mission a success with the crude technology of the age still remains a miracle to me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the full interview here:

With files from On the Coast

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