RECOLLECTIONS FROM MY YEARS AT CARNARVON
SEPTEMBER 1970 to JULY 1974
by David Johns
1 The Track to Carnarvon
In 1970 I was a science teacher at McLean High School, NSW. I liked the work and was not necessarily looking for a change. One weekend in June I was sitting in a friend's kitchen in Sydney, idling flicking through a paper when my eye was caught by an employment advertisement seeking a physicist, I was used to flicking through employment columns and seeing numerous advertisements for accountants or engineers or other common professions but rarely for a physicist. So I read it, with casual attention until I hit the bottom paragraph where it said "the successful applicant must agree to travel to America for training". Suddenly, it looked interesting so I went back and read it again, with greater attention.
The advertisement was seeking a physicist to train in solar physics and then work at the NASA space tracking station in Carnarvon WA. I decided I could enjoy a trip to America and although I knew nothing about solar physics, I applied. It turned out they were seeking two physicists to replace two physicists who were due to soon leave Carnarvon. One of the new physicists had to have research experience but the more junior position did not. There were a lot of applicants and there were two series of interviews but they were not a gruelling experience. Although the interview committee asked predictable questions about physics and electronics, the committee seemed very interested in my general rural background and were highly impressed when I was able to casually mention that I had a semi-trailer truck driver's licence and had previously worked as a truck driver in the Port Hedland and Carnarvon area of WA. I learned later that the committee had previously employed people who were good at physics but who could not adapt to life in Carnarvon and when I said I had driven trucks in the north west summer heat and liked Carnarvon, the committee thought "he's out man" and I was offered the more junior of the two positions. Actually, it was a bit of a fudge because although I had worked as a truckie in the Port Hedland area, I had never been as far south as Carnarvon and my comment that Carnarvon was a nice town was, to put the matter simply, a big fib. So fate had spoken, I was offered a physicist's position because I was a happy ex-truckie.
The plan was that I would work for a month in Sydney at the Ionospheric Prediction Service, which was part of the Commonwealth Department of the Interior, and then go to America for seven weeks and then to Carnarvon for two years. I started work in Sydney in early September 1970. I had no idea what the Ionospheric Prediction Service did but I soon learned that it issues prediction forecasts about radio propagation. The sun affects the world's ionosphere and communication. Radio waves are reflected by the earth's ionosphere so there was the link with solar physics. This was closely linked to what my work would be in Carnarvon.
A few days later I met Leo, the physicist who had been recruited for the more senior of the two Carnarvon positions. Leo had a PhD in physics and we enthusiastically discussed our forthcoming trip to the USA. He had sold his house and ordered furniture to take to Carnarvon where he would be met by his wife when we arrived there in a couple of months time. But all was not plain sailing for Leo. It turned out that because NASA and the US Air Force shared data, we needed security passes and when our details had been sent to the authorities in Canberra, there was a glitch on Leo's record. In the late 1960s and 1970s, America was fighting a pointless war in Vietnam and the Australian Government was sending Australian conscripts to the war. The community was divided and there were violent street demonstrations against the war and the Government. The security weasels in Canberra denied Leo a security clearance because it was alleged that he had attended a demonstration and knocked a policeman's hat off his head. Leo told me that he remembered the incident when he was at a demonstration and a student from Leo's university did knock off a policeman's hat and the policeman wrongly arrested Leo. Charges were later dropped when it was realised that the policeman had no idea who knocked his hat off. The Director of the Ionospheric Prediction Service protested at a high level in Canberra that Leo was a patriotic citizen and should be given a security clearance but the weasels who not relent and so Leo would not be going to the USA after all. So much for being innocent unless proven guilty. The Director felt guilty that Leo had made financial preparations for Carnarvon so the Director gave Leo a permanent job in the Sydney IPS office.
There was a physicist named Don who had worked in the Antarctic for IPS for a year as an ionospheric physicist. Don had recently returned and was at a loose end so IPS hired him to replace Leo. The Director figured that if Don could put up with the solitude and cold of Antarctica for a year, he could stand the Carnarvon heat for two years. Our security passes came through and so it was arranged that Don and I would go to the USA for seven weeks and then to Carnarvon.
We left for the USA at the beginning of October 1970. I still have the ticket butt. I had a GA pilot's licence then and was very interested in aeroplanes. It was the first time I had been in a Boeing 707 and I was, I will admit, quite excited. In those days, all Commonwealth public servants flew first class (there were only two classes then - first class and economy class). All my previous flying had been at my cost and I was used to travelling as cheaply as I could. I felt out of place, sitting there like royalty in first class. A jovial Qantas steward with a champagne bottle permanently in his hand and a white cloth over his arm floated up and down the first class isle topping up people's glasses and laughing at unfunny jokes. His job seemed solely to make people feel relaxed and important and there were a few on board who didn't need much help to feel important. All this pretentious consumption was a new world to me and I was happy to just sit and watch it. At the time, Qantas were giving a small bottle of vintage port to all first class passengers to celebrate 50 years since Qantas was formed. I still have my bottle of port, unopened.
Don and I enjoyed our time in America. We spent most of our time at Boulder, Colorado. Boulder was on the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, with the great plains to the east and the high snow capped mountains to the west. We hired a car for all of the time we were there. It was a dull green Ford Pinto but \when we went to pick it up there had been a mix-up with the bookings and we were given a flashy red Ford Mustang instead of the Pinto, which was OK by us. Every weekend we would travel long distances north, south, east or west and in six weeks we managed to see more of the USA than many of the locals had seen. At a personal level, the Americans are wonderful people but as a society they have to be paranoid about something. At the time, the cold war was at its worst and many Americans believed it was only a matter of time before the evil Soviet Union attacked the God-fearing, peace-loving Americans. Now they are paranoid about terrorists.
When it came time to leave America, I found a friendly travel agent and converted my first class return via the Pacific ticket into an economy return fare via London, Canary Islands, Greece, Iran, Hong Kong and then back to Sydney. On the way home, I visited my mother (who was Australian but was at the time living in London), and NASA and USAF facilities at the Canary Islands, Athens and Tehran. I arrived back in Sydney about ten days after I was due to arrive back on my original ticket. The Director carpeted me and was furious that I had "gone on a world tour" as he put it. Half way through his tirade I realised I had the upper hand because I knew that if he sacked me, he would have to bear the cost of training someone else. Months later, when I had learned more about the intrigues of the public service, I realised that his main concern was that I had travelled economy - he said it set a dangerous precedent.
I was scheduled to fly to Carnarvon but instead decided to drive my car. I gave a friend a lift to Perth. In those days, most of the road between Port Augusta and the WA border was a corrugated pot-holed gravel road. The Perth to Carnarvon road was bitumen. As I drove the last stretch into Carnarvon, I had mixed feelings. I had been attracted to the job because it offered a trip to the USA. Now that the travel and training were behind me and I had to start delivering on the job, I wondered if I was going to like life in Carnarvon. But NASA, via the Australian Government, had invested a lot in me and I intended to give it my best effort for at least two years.
2 Arriving at Carnarvon
It was a Saturday night when I drove into Carnarvon. I had been told in Sydney that I had been booked into the Port Hotel. When I arrived, Peggy, the receptionist at the Port Hotel said that they had never heard of me. When I said I would be working at the NASA tracking station, they said, "oh, that's OK then, you're a tracker" and they put me in one of the 18 odd units that were at the back of the Hotel, units that were permanently hired by the Tracking Station for single staff accommodation.
So that was it, for the next few years, I would be a "tracker". There were several loose socio-economic groupings in the town. People who worked on the sheep and cattle properties were the "station people", those from the fishing industry were "prawners", those from the tropical fruit and vegetable farms along the river were "plantation people" and those who worked for OTC or NASA were "trackers".
I spent Sunday walking around Carnarvon. There were some brick houses but mostly the houses were constructed of low cost materials and there was a working class pragmatism about most of the town. It was about a week before Christmas, the weather was hot, and the seasonal southwest breeze was strong and there was a haze of lethargy in the air. Initial impressions can create lasting memories and I particularly remember noticing that though most of the Carnarvon streets were wide, where there was bitumen, it was mostly a narrow strip in the centre with wide red sandy edges and the cars and wind would raise the red dust so that there was frequently a red haze of dust around the town. I learned later that at that time of year, a clean white shirt would usually have a red collar by midday.
On the Monday, I went to the Tracking Station. There was a boom gate with a gateman to control access to the site. The main administration and operations building, or the T&C (Telemetry and Control) building was on the top of the hill with about 100 operational and administrative people working there, some coming and going at odd hours to correspond with whether the moon was above the horizon or not. There were four other work areas on the site with about 50 more staff; Q6 Radar, Range and Range Rate, Facilities and Stores, and SPAN.
The SPAN site was to be my work site for at least the next two years. As it turned out, I was there for three and a half years.
3 SPAN Work and Equipment
The SPAN site was located a bit less than a kilometre west of the T&C building or about a hundred metres west of the entry boom gate. SPAN was an acronym for Solar Particle Alert Network. NASA had built a SPAN station at Carnarvon WA, Canary Islands Spain and at Boulder USA so that the Sun could be monitored 24 hours a day. All of the SPAN sites monitored the sun while ever it was above their horizon, so even during cloudy weather, the overlap of the sites meant that the sun was being monitored all of the time, except on the odd occasions when there was simultaneously bad weather at more than one site.
The SPAN building was a brick and cement building about 18 metres by 9 metres which contained office and storage space, racks of electronics equipment and a well-equipped photographic dark room. There was a telescope located in a small circular shaped building with a rotating astronomical dome roof on the northern end of the SPAN building.
The main equipment at SPAN was a 5-inch diameter refracting telescope with a special narrow band optical filter set at the primary hydrogen emission line. The telescope had been made by an inventive scientist named Razdow so the telescope was known to all as the "Razdow telescope". The telescope was mounted on an hour angle/declination mount which means that it was on an axle exactly parallel to the earth's axis and as the earth rotated forward, the telescope would rotate backwards so that it would stay pointing at the same spot in space, that is, at the sun. If it was set pointing at the sun at the beginning of the day, it would point to the sun all day. A small tracking telescope with internal light sensors was mounted on the side of the main telescope and sent tracking corrections to the main telescope drives so that they automatically compensated for small tracking errors and changes in declination. At sunset, the telescope would be reversed back to the eastern horizon to be ready for the next day.
In simple terms, the sun is a giant thermonuclear furnace. It has a central temperature of about 13 million oC and a surface temperature of about 6,000 oC. The solar surface has localised hot spots that flare and spit off X-rays and electron and proton radiation which sprays out through the solar system and is known as the solar wind. The part of the solar wind that passes near the earth becomes trapped in the earth's magnetic fields and is absorbed in the upper atmosphere which causes radio propagation disturbances, magnetic storms and visible polar auroras but almost none of the solar radiation penetrates down to ground level so terrestrial man is protected from solar radiation. However, if man is outside of the earth's atmosphere and magnetic field and on his way to the moon, or worse still, walking on the surface of the moon where there is no magnetic field or atmosphere, man has no effective protection from solar radiation. NASA did not have long-term data on the intensity or frequency of solar flares and solar radiation. Accordingly, NASA had built three solar observatories around the world: one at Boulder USA, one at the Canary Islands Spain and one at Carnarvon Australia. The purpose of the observatories was to monitor the sun from dawn to dark every day and build up a 24-hour per day, seven days per week database of the frequency and intensity of solar flares and if possible, learn the precursors and be able to predict solar flares. That was to be my work for the next two years.
When viewed through the telescope eyepiece, the sun looked like the mottled surface of a navel orange, with bright pages and darker areas where gas clouds that were suspended above the solar surface attenuated the light emitted by the surface. Plages were first named by French scientists who thought the bright areas looked like hot sand beaches and thus the name "plage". Plages are areas of elevated temperature on the surface of the sun and there are often dark roundish spots embedded in the plages. A camera was mounted to the telescope and set to automatically take a photo of the sun every thirty seconds. The film was later sent to Boulder for developing and later scanned for flares and then stored by NASA.
About 40 metres north of the SPAN building was a fiberglass dome about 6 or 8 metres in diameter with a parabolic tracking aerial at the centre of the dome. The aerial was hour angle / declination mounted and tracked the sun all day. The aerial fed into receivers that detected solar emitted radio waves and the receiver outputs were displayed on chart recorders in the SPAN building. The solar radio telescope was tuned to monitor solar RF radio emission at approximately, 1.5, 2.9 and 4.9 GHz because if was considered that there was an approximate correlation between solar RF emission at these frequencies and flare induced particle showers.
Another instrument we used on a daily basis was a 6-inch Newtonian reflector telescope to project a white light image of the sun onto a screen. When an ordinary image of the sun is projected onto a screen the sun shows up as a bright disk with dark spots on its surface: sunspots. Sunspots are areas where strong magnetic fields enter or exit the sun's surface. At those points, the surface is a couple of hundred degrees cooler than the surrounding surface and thus emits less light, which makes that part of the surface seem dark in comparison to the rest of the solar surface.
With then three instruments, the Razdow telescope, the radio telescopes and the white light telescope we were able to monitor the sun and detect solar flares when they occurred. Plages would come and go. They may be small and only last a few hours or they may be complex and grow in area to about 100 square solar degrees over several weeks and then decline at the same rate. Flares would occur in the plages. The flare would consist of a small part of the plage heating to a very bright intensity with an explosive beginning and a tapering return to normal plage intensity. Flares were quantified by their size and intensity. Small flares may only last a couple of minutes with very big flares taking up to a couple of hours for the surface to return to normal intensity.
Flares are complex but can be thought of as a volume of intensely heated material from below the sun's surface rising due to convection and breaking through the surface of the sun. Just as a boiling pan of fat in the kitchen spits hot fat, the heated material breaks through the surface of the sun and emits a flood of particle and electromagnetic radiation. Flare emit everything from short wave x-rays to long wavelength radio emission and particles, out into the solar system. Most of the radiation goes harmlessly into space but NASA had a concern that if a big flare occurred while the astronauts were outside of the earth's protection, the astronauts would be badly radiated. Although x-rays and gamma radiation was a concern, NASA was mostly concerned about particle radiation, that is fast electrons and protons, hitting the exposed astronauts. Thus the word "particle" in the name, Solar Particle Alert Network.
An added complication is that a magnetic field spirals out from the sun, past earth and out to the outer reaches of the solar system. Particle radiation heading towards earth is ducted by the field and follows a looping path and or may not hit the earth. Thus it was possible to big flares from which there would be substantial auroras and other terrestrial effects, and on other occasions there could be equally large flares with little effect on earth.
I could write pages about observing the sun and its flares but suffice it to say that Don and I had the job of observing the sun and sending two written teletype messages per day to NASA Mission Control in Houston Texas and to SPAN control at Boulder, USA. Information copies of our solar messages also went to Goddard Space Flight Centre in Washington DC, the SPAN site at the Canary Islands NASA Tracking Station, the US Air Force (USAF) early warning centre under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, to other USAF solar observatories and the Australian Ionospheric Prediction Service in Sydney. NASA Mission Control used SPAN data and data from other sources, to make assessments about astronaut safety leading up to and during the Apollo moon missions.
4 SPAN History
When NASA sought to have tracking stations in Australia, the Australian government agreed but did not want the stations to become little Americas - the stations had to be manned by Australians. The process was that NASA paid the then Commonwealth Department of Supply to build and operate the tracking stations. The Department of Supply used contractors to build the tracking stations, initially one at Carnarvon and later stations at Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla near Canberra. The stations were operated by contractors, but to tight NASA requirements.
After the war, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, whose main job was to issue weather forecasts, became involved, by default, in issuing radio propagation forecasts and in time the Bureau developed a separate section, the Ionospheric Prediction Service (IPS). In the 1960s, the Bureau of Meteorology was part of the Commonwealth Department of the Interior so IPS was also a part of the Department of the Interior. By the late 1960s, IPS was sharing solar data with other countries around the world and had also developed strong data sharing links with the USAF. For decades the USAF had been using radio communications all over the world and had developed a string of its own solar observatories so that it could monitor flares and predict terrestrial radio propagation characteristics. When NASA began to plan the Apollo flights to the moon NASA recognised that it needed to develop a capacity to forecast solar radiation particle showers in space. NASA began to share solar data with the USAF and when NASA wanted to put a solar monitoring station in Australia, it talked to the USAF solar contacts in Australia, that is to IPS which was a part of the Commonwealth Department of the Interior. Out of those discussions came the decision to place a SPAN observatory at Carnarvon and staff it with IPS physicists.
Thus the Carnarvon tracking Station had a Station Director and Deputy Director and an Administration Officer who war employees of the Commonwealth Department of Supply. Amalgamated Wireless of Australasia (AWA) had the contract to operate the Carnarvon Tracking Station and answered to the Station Director. Don and I were employees of the Department of the Interior Ionospheric Prediction Service. We answered to NASA personnel in America for the quality of our work, and we answered to the Station Director for matters relevant to the station. This meant that Don and I had to operate through a complicated hierarchical path whenever we needed changes to the AWA equipment maintenance procedures.
5 SPAN Staff
At SPAN, AWA had three electronics technicians whose job it was to maintain the equipment in top working order. There were also three operators who took photos, did darkroom work and performed other data collection tasks. Don's and my job was to use the equipment to take the solar observations, analyse the data and write the solar reports. Work at SPAN would start about half an hour before sunrise and finish about half an hour after sunset. During the week Don and I would alternate morning and afternoon shifts and we would each fully work every second weekend. In summer a weekend could be two fourteen-hour shifts. Our hours were long but we had flexibility of being able to swap shifts so we could each have time off when we wanted it. Because of the hours we were well paid and I was happy to work long hours and bank the money.
At SPAN there was a silly demarcation issue. While Don and I were expected to use the equipment for observations, we were encouraged to not do maintenance work but report all faults to the technicians for them to fix. This would have been OK except that there were problems with the telescope and the senior technician, who was OK with electronics, knew nothing about optics. Worse still, he blustered and pretended that he knew a lot. Don and I had worked in optics labs and we could see that the telescope was not performing to its specifications. Don, although senior to me, was of a more accommodating nature that I was and I had many clashes with the senior technician. Eventually he was transferred out of SPAN and was replaced by an engineer, Roger Glass. Roger set about addressing the problems and the telescope results improved significantly.
The main SPAN technicians were Russell Swarger and Hans Lemons, who were cooperative and good at their work. Russell had recently returned from Vietnam and told worrying stories about the progress, or lack of progress in the Vietnam war. Hans had worked for Telstra (or the PMG as it was previously named) and found the NASA work to be a breath of fresh air. Other technicians who worked at SPAN from time to time included Jim Clearly, Jim Gregg and Doug Beany. Some of the SPAN operators also did equipment operating in other parts of the Tracking Station. The longer-term SPAN operators that I remember at SPAN were Anne Green, Rosemary Williams, Ruth Cates, Cathy Frannin and Liz Beckett.
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and by today's standards, I would say we were a little over manned at SPAN. NASA seemed to have a philosophy of having enough staff to cope with crises when they occurred. At SPAN we often worked at a relaxed pace and although we were conscientious and did our work to a high standard, there was usually time for a joke and a laugh and sometimes the place was more like a beach party than a work area.
6 The End of SPAN
Don left Carnarvon in 1973. I worked at SPAN for three and a half years and was there until July 1974, when the SPAN equipment was dismantled and packed in boxes and sent temporarily to storage and then to the CSIRO Radio Physics Heliograph site at Culgoora (near Narrabri) NSW. I moved to Culgoora to operate a temporary solar observatory (with a staff of five) and in 1977 the Ionospheric Prediction Service built a permanent solar observatory in the CSIRO grounds and we installed the Razdow telescope. I worked there until 1986 and I now work in Canberra. I visited the Culgoora Solar Observatory recently. The CSIRO site is now The Australia Telescope site with a massive set of interferometer aerials on a 5 km rail track. At the solar observatory, the Razdow telescope is still going well but the big change has been that the equipment has been automated and the data has been digitised so that the observatory now has a staff of one but is producing a better quality of output than we did at SPAN Carnarvon with a staff of eight. That is the way technology has gone.
I enjoyed my time at Carnarvon. They were mostly good times, with some ups and downs. I have recorded some of recollections below, not necessarily listed in any particular order.
7 Living Conditions
For about the first year that I was at Carnarvon, I lived in unit 7 at the back of the Port Hotel. About a dozen trackers lived in the units at the back of the hotel. There was also a common room there and we sometimes socialised in the common. There was an open are of Kikuyu lawn besides the units and in the centre of the lawn was a septic tank with the top elevated about a foot above the ground. A rose vine grew over the top of the tank and somewhat disguised the tank's purpose and the septic tank was always politely referred to as "the rose bowl". I well recall that on hot summer evenings, when the air hung dense and still, there was no mistaking the aromas that emanated from the rose bowl and hung around the units.
Life at the Port hotel was interesting. The hotel was owned and managed by Wilson Tuckey. Wilson was in his thirties. He was energetic, ambitious, loud, was the town mayor and had other business interest around town. Some people found Wilson overbearing but I liked him and respected his can do attitude. While I was living at the Port Hotel, Wilson bought a big run down empty shop in the main street, gutted it and built it into an arcade of classy shops. I used to see him there at dawn, working the machinery and getting in a hour or two before his men came to work and he would often still be at it after they left - he was a real worker. There were three drinking bars at the Port Hotel. There was the Fish Bar, so named because there was a large fish tank along one wall. The Fish Bar had a carpet floor, dress standards, soft music, air conditioning and was a nice place to pass the time of day if you were the socialising type, particularly on hot summer days and evenings. The Front Bar had open doors to the main street, no dress standards and was popular with manual workers who wanted to do some serious drinking. The Side Bar opened onto a side street. It was mostly frequented by aboriginal people and was as rough and coarse and grubby as a bar can be. Wilson managed his hotel with a firm grip, which sometimes meant he found himself in the middle of someone else's brawl. There was a noted occasion, that I did not see but I heard a lot about, when Wilson and his brother are alleged to have struck a patron with an iron bar while breaking up a fight. There were two sides to the story but the press has seen to it that one side of the story will stay with Wilson for life.
There was a beer garden at the hotel and bands often played there until late. I was an infrequent drinker and I worked long hours so I rarely visited the beer garden and the bars. Mostly, I though the beer garden bands were more noisy than musical but I managed to sleep through most of it.
After I had lived at the Port Hotel for about nine months, I tired of the noise and moved to a Tracking Station managed duplex at 29 Babbage island road. Peter Roberts and Dave Gardiner lived in 29B Babbage Island Road and Bob Houghton and I lived in 29A. Bob was a young English engineer who worked at the tracking station until about 1973, when the tracking station was starting to contract. Bob was a fine fellow and we have remained good friends ever since. After Bob left, John Rudkin, who had previously worked at Carnarvon and then returned to England for a while, came back to the Carnarvon Tracking Station and shared 29A Babbage Island with me. John was fine company and we got on very well.
In the 1950s and '60s the nearby Gascoyne River had flooded through the town. Levy banks had since been constructed around the town. Once the levy banks were completed, the town could expand and a new suburb "Morgantown" was being built to accommodate a growing workforce at Carnarvon. Over the next few years I visited the homes of many of the trackers at Carnarvon. It was noticeable that while most of them were happy to be at Carnarvon, they tended to see it as a temporary chapter in their lives and few of the trackers put down permanent roots while at Carnarvon. Very few of the trackers had nice gardens or planted anything for the future. They tended to put most of their spare time into their recreational interests. The party goers tended to have more parties, the fishy people did more fishing and the drinkers did more drinking. My interests were in touring the country and when I had spare time, I liked to put my kayak on top of my car and go off looking for places to kayak. Sometimes I would go with friends and sometimes I had time off when others were working so I would go alone.
8 Technology Shock
NASA had good communication links to all parts of the world and it was possible, when there was a need, for Carnarvon staff to talk to staff on any of the other tracking stations. The communication links were known as "nets" or the "scama 'phone" (SCAMA was an acronym for Systems Communication and Maintenance Appliance) and anyone with a valid reason could turn on the net and have conversations with other stations. It was possible to hear people from multiple sites. The discussions were usually technical and full of jargon and acronyms and not very meaningful unless you had a working knowledge of what was being discussed. At that stage of my like, I had only ever made one hurried overseas telephone call and I thought that was a big deal - in those days, overseas calls were complicated to arrange, expensive and not a common consumer item.
In July 1969, Apollo 11 had gone to the moon and been a huge success and it was followed by Apollo 12 in November 1969, which was likewise a success. In April 1970, there was an explosion in an oxygen tank on Apollo 13 and for several days it was touch and go whether the crew would get back to Earth alive.
I arrived at Carnarvon about a month before Apollo 14 was due to go to the moon. NASA was anxious that, as much as possible, there be no problems with Apollo 14.
One day, only a few weeks after I arrived in Carnarvon, I was doing my work at SPAN and I could hear discussion on the net and I did not take much notice and then I realised I was hearing a conference discussion between the Operations Managers at about ten different sites, all around the world, all discussing procedures and readiness for Apollo 14. It was task focused but quite informal as they all participated and discussed various scenarios and it went on for about 40 minutes. I was gob smacked that so many people from different parts of the world could just have a discussion like as though they were all in one room. These days, we can watch real time replays of a tennis serve at Wimbledon or a replay of a missile exploding in Iraq and think nothing of it but back in 1970, the existence of that technology was very new to me and impressed me greatly.
Another piece of technology that blew me away was that I think SPAN had the first ever facsimile machine in Australia, though that name was not around at the time. At SPAN, we had the capability to take a photo of the sun, develop the film and make a black and white print all within about 10 minutes, which was by the standards of the time, very fast. We would describe features on the photos in out twice daily written solar reports, or we could direct to Boulder on the scama 'phone about what we could see on the photos and where there were interesting solar surface features. NASA's main solar forecasting centre was a t Boulder and Boulder decided it wanted the capacity to have a photo from Carnarvon as close to real time as possible and Boulder sent us a new state of the art photo transmitter. The machine was about 60 cm square and about 25 cm high. There was a folding glass door that opened and gave access to a roller about 30 cm long and 9 cm in diameter. A clip ran the length of the roller and would clip the photo on the roller, wrap it around the drum and then fold a special plastic covering around the drum and secure it with special magnetic clips. We would then talk on the scama 'phone handpiece to the operator at Boulder who had a specially built photo receiver and when we were both ready, I would place my phone handset into a special recess in our photo transmitter and in Boulder he would place his phone handset into his photo receiving machine. I would then turn on our transmitter and a slow scanning head would track along beside the rotating drum and the photo scans would be converted to audio and picked up by our scama 'phone and then transmitted to the receiver at Boulder. The rotating drum would spin at about 100 RPM and there would be an irritating high pitched audio signal on the scama 'phone for about the eight minutes that it took to send one 20 cm by 20 cm photo to Boulder. Notwithstanding the two acoustic interfaces that would not be tolerated with today's technology, the quality of the transmitted photo was surprisingly good because Boulder would occasionally post one back to us as a quality check. These days I can take a colour digital photo and immediately e-mail it without quality loss to friends on the other side of the world at almost no cost but in 1970, I thought that our SPAN photo transmitter was the ultimate.
Video recorder/players and videotapes did not arrive in the domestic market until about the 1980s. I recall being in the telemetry room at the main building one day and Colin Foster showed me a new and very expensive device that could record TV pictures. It was a big complex machine but the feature that sticks in my mind most is that it had a reel-to-reel tape that was about four inches wide. In those days, the idea of recording a video signal was very cutting edge. Indeed the only consumer tapes that I recall seeing in those days was the common audio tape, about 10 cm by 6.5 cm which first appeared in the late 1960s and is still in use today.
Kim Gates was an engineer in the Telemetry Section of the Carnarvon Tracking Station. He told me a story once that I though was very funny and I still tell the same story today at dinner parties. Kim was working in the Telemetry room one day during one of the Apollo moon missions, possibly Apollo 16 but I am not sure which mission it was. The Lunar Module had landed and the astronauts were preparing to descend and walk on the moon's surface. As was the normal work practice, the net was turned on at normal volume in the Telemetry room and everyone present, and probably hundreds of workers in other tracking stations all around the world, could hear the astronauts going through their checks. During the Apollo missions, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours when workers at the tracking stations had the net on and could hear the astronaut conversations but the workers would develop a familiarity with the process and only listen for what they needed to hear and disregard the rest of the astronaut babble as they went through their procedures and read back check jargon to Houston. On this occasion, the astronauts descended their ladder and walked on the moon and one of their first tasks was to walk away from the Lander and put a TV camera and transmitter on a tripod so the camera could film the action and send the picture direct to Houston as the astronauts rigged up other experiments. The camera was soon rigged up but Houston was not receiving a picture. Houston had experts at hand and the controller consulted with them and then made suggestions to the astronaut and he read back meters and twisted dials at Houston's direction. The TV picture was not a past of the Carnarvon Station's work and the Carnarvon worker's attention drifted to other matters as Houston and the astronaut exchanged data and ideas about what might be wrong and how it could be corrected. Like background music in the supermarket, the technical babble droned on and on for maybe ten minutes and as Houston and the astronaut worked on the problem and Kim and the other Australian staff were not listening at all. Suddenly there was excitement in the Houston voice and it was receiving a "beautiful beautiful" picture and the excitement attracted the attention of Kim and the other staff and their concentration focused on the exchange between Houston and the Astronaut. Houston was exclaiming satisfaction that its diagnosis had been so successful and Houston sought the astronaut's confirmation that he had indeed achieved the good picture by implementing Houston's last suggested adjustment. Radio waves travel at 300,000 km per second and it was normal that every time Houston spoke to the moon, there would be a nearly three second delay before the astronaut's voice began to reply. Everyone waited the customary three seconds for the reply but there was no reply. After a ten second wait, Houston repeated the question, but there was still no reply. By now everyone was 100% focused on the exchange of comments but there was still no response from the astronaut. Then after another Houston query and a long delay, the astronaut was back on the air and with typical laconic drawl he said, "Weel Hooston, ah was walkin' around the tripod and was about to apply yer last suggestion when ah accidentally hit the leg of the tripod with my foot and the picture came real real good". So that was that, NASA with its infinite budget and the best equipment and advice that money could buy, had been stumped by a problem that was eventually solved by an old fashioned kick - Murphy's first law of technology.
In 1970, home sized computers had not been developed and most computers were large mainframe computers in cabinets and six feet tall. NASA was beginning to record some data on computers but a lot was still recorded on chart recorders. While I was at Carnarvon, I recall being in the USB aerial control room one day with Kim Gates and he showed me chart recordings from Apollo 13. I can not recall all the details now but I think the two charts he showed me were of available oxygen reserves and temperature inside the spacecraft. The charts displayed about a six hour period from about three days before they were due to splashdown and it was apparent that if they did get back, their temperature would be down to only a few degrees but the oxygen was more alarming because the rate of decline showed they would actually run out of oxygen days before they got back. It's history now but NASA was able to have the crew implement emergency plumbing that salvaged enough oxygen to enable the crew to get back to Earth alive.
Most of the NASA tracking stations around the world had social clubs and there was a level of communication between the clubs, mostly by teletype and sometimes on the scama 'phone. Some of the stations were near the coast and so the clubs would arrange inter-tracking station fishing competitions. There were good fishing conditions off the coast at Carnarvon and Max Garth, a USB technician, was a very keen fisherman. Max held various national fishing records and contributed to fishing magazines and would talk fishing all day. I recall one occasion when Max had arranged an inter tracking station fishing competition. There were strict rules and each club was allowed to have a certain number of people fish for a specified time and whichever club caught the most weight of edible fish won the competition. Max considered the Hawaii tracking station fishing club was the hottest competition and he spared no effort in his planning for the great competition. When the day arrived, one of Max's fishing buddies was sick so another tracker, John Rudkin, was invited into the boat at short notice. John had done some fishing (nothing like as much as Max had) but he was pleased to be invited into the group and was looking forward to a relaxing day of social fishing. John left early in the morning, the sea was rough and he was sick but the fishing was relentless and they caught a lot of fish. By the time John returned he was exhausted and feeling very down. Carnarvon easily won the competition but after that, if you ever suggested a quiet day of fishing to John, he would look at you like you were mad.
I didn't mind a bit of fishing myself. On one occasion, about ten of us trackers hired a local fishing charter boat to do a day of handline fishing. None of us were fanatical about fishing so it was going to be a relaxing day. The boat owner seemed to be experienced and we headed straight to the northern tip of Bernier Island, about 50 kilometres offshore from Carnarvon. At about one hundred metres north of the tip of the island, the boat owner cruised slowly around in random circles while he watched the depth sounder. He said he was looking for fish but I wondered if he was just trying to impress us. After a while he found a secondary reflection at about 120 ft deep, about 20 ft above the bottom. His theory was that the turbulence where two currents met at the tip of the island produced oxygen and fish congregated there. I hoped he knew more about fishing than he did about marine chemistry. He stopped the boat above the echoes and in no time we were pulling up big snapper. It was not exactly a case of the skilful hunter out foxing the prey. It was more a case of random luck. The hand lines were of heavy nylon, about 80 lb breaking strain, with three hooks and a heavy sinker. All three hooks would be baited and then the line would be fed over the side. It took a fair while to feed out 120 ft and as the baited hooks passed through the school of snapper there would be a flurry of snaps at the baits and jags on the line and if you were lucky, you had a fish, but more commonly the bait would be gone and you would have to haul it back up, bait the hooks and do it all over again. It takes a long time to feed out and haul up 120 ft or more of hand line. The boatman supplied gloves to most of the party but there were not enough gloves for everyone so I had none. We were all catching good fish but my hands got very sore hauling that line up and down and so on some occasions when I would loose all of my bait, I would pretend that I was still fishing but I would leave the line on the bottom for ten or fifteen minutes while I had a rest. The boatman could tell by the feel of the line whether it had bait or not and a couple of times he well meaningfully interrupted my rests and insisted I pull the line up and check for bait. I would fake a surprised look when I saw that it had no bait and he would busy himself by getting more bait for me and would not rest until I had the line out again. We were going to stay out all day but by midday we had more fish than we needed and some people were getting weasy from the rocking of the boat so we packed up and came home and spent the rest of the day cleaning fish.
10 The Flybys
When an Apollo mission went to the moon, it wasn't just a matter of firing off a rocket and waiting ten days for the crew to come back. From before the time that the rocket entered its first Earth orbit, telemetry information was pouring back into the Earth stations and command information was going up from the Earth stations to the rocket and crew. It was essential that the personnel in the ground stations knew their job and did not make mistakes, which was a tall order because the only really true practice that could be had was during a real mission. NASA addressed the issue of live practice for the tracking stations by having several aircraft that carried recorded information and the aircraft would visit each tracking station and fly circuits near the station and transmit simulated telemetry to the station. The transmissions were programmed to simulate the same problems that the ground stations would have to cope with during a real mission. Thus, the ground stations acquired their practice for the actual moon missions.
The flyby plane for the Apollo series was an old four-engined propeller driven Lockheed Constellation aircraft. It was big and could carry tonnes of computers and other equipment and still had comfortable seating for about 20 passengers (the Lockheed Constellation was the main aircraft of the Qantas fleet up to about 1958 when Qantas commenced using Boeing 707 jet aircraft).
The Flyby plane would leave America and go to an overseas NASA tracking station. Some of the crew would go into the station as observers/advisors and some of the crew would operate the computers and transmitters on the plane. The plane would fly circuits near the tracking station and transmit and receive telemetry that simulated situations that would occur during the actual moon missions. When the work was completed at that station, there may be a few rest days and then the plane would move on to another NASA tracking station. And so the plane and its technical crew would work their way around the world, working and overflying for a few days at each tracking station and the plane would be out of America for up to six months.
There would usually be about 3 or 4 Flyby days at Carnarvon with maybe a lay day or two and then the plane would move onto the next tracking station. It was always a big event when the Flybys came to Carnarvon. During the visit people would work hard and party hard and a visit by a flyby crew was one of the big events on Carnarvon Tracking Station's social calendar. The weight of the Super Constellation exceeded the allowable weight for the Carnarvon airfield so the plane would have to leave Perth very early in the morning to be over Carnarvon by 7:00 to 8:00 am, fly circuits all day at Carnarvon and then go back to Perth to land. Carnarvon usually only saw about half of the flyby personnel. Some of the on board technical crew would fly from Perth to Carnarvon on a commercial airline and stay at Carnarvon for the duration of the exercise and the other half of the technical crew would stay in Perth every evening and not see Carnarvon except through the window of the aircraft each day. It seemed to me that the flyby personnel had a good life, travel in a lovely old aeroplane, be accommodated at good hotels, do interesting work and be wined and dined by the staff at each tracking station around the world - an almost glamorous existence. Some of the younger flybys saw it that way and they partied hard and played the part but many of them saw it as just a job to be done and nothing more. I particularly remember having an in depth discussion with one of the older flybys at a loud party. He was about in his mid-fifties and had worked for the USAF and then NASA. In his working life he had been in more countries than he could remember and had been on the flyby work since the moon missions commenced. He was particularly jaded with it all and was counting the days until he could retire and go back to the little farm he had grown up on. He said something that I have never forgotten. He said he has no interest to visit any new country and in all of the many countries that he had visited, they all had one thing in common. They all boast that they have a lot of freedom. He said that even people who live in oppressed societies grow to believe the oppression is just the government exercising a reasonable restraint to maintain a coherent society. To me it seemed like a crazy statement but he had been in more countries that I will ever be in so how could I argue, but it did make me ask if our society is as free as we say it is. With hindsight, I think the world may have changed a lot since he told that to me thirty years ago.
It chanced one evening in November 1972, a few days before a flyby crew was due to arrive in Carnarvon, that I was sitting at home watching the ABC TV news when it featured the flyby Super Constellation taxiing into its parking bay at Perth airport, having just arrived at Perth from a distant NASA Tracking Station, via Mauritius Island. The news reader commented on the special work that the aircraft was doing for NASA and that the crews and their families were looking forward to a few days of rest in Perth and the camera panned in on an attractive young lady in tropical clothes who was jaunting down the stairs of the aircraft with a happy bouncing six year old in tow. I did not know that they were allowed to carry friends and family on the plane and I got to thinking that if friends and family could ride on the plane, then maybe I could too. I had a pilot license (for very small planes) and I would have given my right arm for a ride on the Super Constellation. A couple of days later the Flyby personnel arrived in town and the next morning the plane was up there droning away as it settled in for a long day of pretending it was an Apollo rocket. The Commander of the Flybys was Evan Gull. During the Carnarvon flybys Evan was mostly in the Carnarvon Communications Room, wearing a headset and talking to people in the plane, people at Houston and people in the various work centre around the Carnarvon Tracking Station. I rehearsed my bet arguments and I went to see Evan about my riding in the plane. When I arrived at the Communications Room I could see that Evan was busy, very busy. I sat outside of the room and watched him through a glass partition and I could hear him on the net. Among other things, he was explaining to some of the Carnarvon staff that some of their procedures needed changing but he was doing it in such a way that there was no inferred criticism and there were a lot of compliments. Evan was impressive. He was in his mid thirties, tall, good looking, confident, articulate and right on top of his job. When he had a quiet moment, I introduced myself and after some brief pleasantries, I quickly got to the point and asked him if I could ride on the plane. I expected an interrogation but he was quickly onto the net and talking to he captain of the plane. "Say Frank, you're going to have company tomorrow, there's a guy here who's going to Perth tonight and he will be on the plane with you tomorrow." The Captain's response was quick, "Great, I haven't met a Carnarvon tracker so he can tell us what it is like down there." So that was that, it only took ten seconds and I was on the plane tomorrow. Evan asked about the road trip to Perth. I think he would have enjoyed a road trip to see the country but it was not an option for him. He thought it was a long way to drive and he said if it was him, he would be looking of a co-driver to Perth. He said, 'why not get a co-driver who can go on the plane too'. I thought I would have no problem selling that to another tracker so I agreed and Evan told the Captain of the plane that there would be two of us. The Captain gave me directions to a gate in the fence at Perth airport where I was to meet the crew the next day at 3:30am. I chatted a little more with Evan and then he got busy so I left. Evans's efficiency and pleasantness left a lasting impression on me. Ten years later may wife and I called our first son Evan. We both liked the name in its own right but we had both met Evan Gull and were impressed and I think that had something to do with it.
Roger Glass leapt at the chance to come on the plane and we left for Perth about midday. We met the pilots at the gate at the appointed time and then went to the plane (I might add that the gate was unlocked, but that was 1972). Other crew were already busy getting the plane ready and Roger and I were made very welcome on board. The full crew was five air crew (two pilots, engineer, navigator and load master) and about fifteen NASA telemetry/computer/communication specialists, about ten of whom were at Carnarvon. The loadmaster was very friendly and introduced us to the rest of the crew, showed us our seats and then showed us a chest refrigerator that contained countless cans of drink, numerous cold chickens, salads, icecreams and other nice food and then he left the aircraft because he had things he needed to do in Perth, but not before assuring us to "eat as much as you can because I've got more food ordered for tomorrow."
I stood behind the Captain and co-pilot to watch their pre-flight checks. They were soon running up the engines and the engineer was fiddling with a panel of oscilloscopes and he was worried about a misfiring in number three engine. There was some discussion to the effect that the engine would probably settle and we commenced taxiing. I knew that aviation regulations required that I should by then have been in a seat with the seat belt fastened but I wanted to stay on the flight deck as long as possible and I told the Captain I wanted to watch their procedures but I would go to my seat as soon as he gave me the signal. As I hoped, he never did give me the signal and Roger and I were standing behind the pilots for all of the take-off and for most of the next two hours. Modern planes take off by gaining speed and then rotating the nose upward and climbing away from the ground. The Super Constellation was heavy with fuel and came from an era of less powerful engines and it did not have the power for a steep take off. During the take-off, it gained speed until it was flying and gradually flew away from the ground without rotation. The initial climb was so gradual that it was not possible to recognise the moment that the plane actually left the ground. We departed at about 4:30 am local.
About five minutes after departure, the navigator took sextant readings on some stars through a perspex dome in the roof of the plane and gave the Captain a heading to steer. We climbed slowly to about 13,000 ft and tracked direct for Carnarvon at about 190 knots. The pilots were in their late fifties and joked about having been too old to convert to jets and both intended to finish their careers in the Super Constellation. They were a jovial pair and told some very blue jokes. We talked about aircraft performance, life at Carnarvon, their life in the Flyby circuit and they told us the history of the aircraft we were on. It was manufactured in the late 1940's for the USAF and was assigned to be General McArthur's personal aircraft. It was fitted out especially for him and he and his entourage travelled in it wherever they went. When McArthur was sacked the plane was returned to the Air Force where it was used until the 1960s when it was assigned to the Bendix Co to fit out for flyby work on the Apollo series. Its current configuration was toilets and storage at the back, then a well appointed galley near the back door, then there was the old Firs Class area with about 24 roomy comfortable seats and a few small reading tables which finished with a partition about half way along the aircraft (the First Class areas were always at the back in the big piston engined planes, less noise and vibration than across the main wing spar). The mid area was about 25 ft long with a row of NASA computers and communication consoles along each side of the isle and then another partition. Forward of the partition there was an exit door, more storage space, then four flight crew bunks (an upper and lower bunk on each side of the aircraft) and then a seat and console on each side, one for the navigator and one for the flight engineer. The engineer's desk was reasonably large and faced the right side of the aircraft with a whole wall of dials, controls and oscilloscopes. The two pilots sat immediately in front of the engineer's area. By today's standards, the entire plane, particularly in the flight crew area, had an old fashioned roominess about it. The navigator and engineer work spaces, crew storage and flight crew bunks took up most of the first five metres behind the pilots, space that would be more efficiently on today's aircraft. In the computer area of the plane, NASA personnel were already plugged into their communication consoles and were preparing their equipment for the day's work.
I commented to the Captain that it must have been satisfying to be able to bring friends and family on the plane and he looked baffled. I told him about seeing the young mother alight from the plane on the TV news. He did not know that a TV crew had been at the airport to see the plane arrive and he was very annoyed to hear that the mother and child had been on the news and he told us the full story. As Captain of the plane, he was under very strict instructions to only carry assigned flyby personnel, or other tracking station personnel if there was a legitimate work need. He said Roger and I should not really be on the plane but if he had to, he would argue that he waned us there to tell him about the workings of the Carnarvon Tracking Station. When they were just about to depart Mauritius Island, the local Police Commissioner came to the plane and asked them to carry a sick four-year-old girl and a doctor to Perth. At first the Captain declined but the commissioner said that the girl was desperately ill and may die so the Captain agreed, subject to the Commissioner supplying a letter stating that is was a matter of life or death for the girl that she get to a hospital in Perth. The letter was quickly written and passed over and then the Commissioner added that the mother would have to go too because there would be a long convalescence for the patient and she would need her mother there. The Captain felt he had been conned a bit but he agreed and the mother's name was added to the letter and the patient and doctor arrived and were made comfortable on the plane. At the last moment the mother arrived with another daughter and the Commissioner said that the other daughter should go too because she would be with her mother. Frank did not have time to argue any more and the plane was already late for departure so he put the mother and the other daughter on board and took off. During the flight to Perth, he specifically briefed the mother that he did not want her making a show of arriving on the plane and should go discreetly with ambulance when it came to the plane to collect the sick child. Frank did not know until I told him that the TV news had panned in on the mother and daughter alighting from the plane and Frank was very annoyed that the mother had let herself be filmed. Frank expected to get a please explain letter for his employers back in the USA.
When we reached Carnarvon we took up a position flying a long loop with parallel sides. The eastern end of the loop was over the Carnarvon Jetty and the western end was about over Bernier Island. We droned on for hours, flying the same loop while data and communications flashed up and down between he plane and the ground station.
From 13,000 ft the scenery was very different from what I had seen from small planes in the Carnarvon area. The continuous loop gave a lot of opportunities to take photos of different features on the ground and in the ocean. I was intrigued to see that off the coast and extending for miles out to sea, particularly south of Carnarvon, there is a definite pattern of deeper channels on an otherwise flat sea floor.
At lunch time, there was a lull in activities at the station so at my suggestion the crew flew the plane up the coast so I could get some photos of the blowholes area and Cape Cuvier. I wondered how many other amateur photographers could direct a Super Constellation around the sky to enable preferred photo angles.
At about mid afternoon we were finished the work for the day and Frank said he would like to have a close look at Carnarvon Tracking Station. He advised the tracking station that he intended to make a low pass on the southern side of the USB antenna. When he called Carnarvon airport (Carnarvon was still manned by DCA personnel then) for a clearance to descend over the tracking station, the airport officers at Carnarvon said "cleared to descend, no traffic, and we want a look at you too so make sure you come over us as well as the station". With that little encouragement from officialdom, Frank turned his low pass into an old fashioned beet up. He brought the plane down above the salt flats on the southern side of town and we levelled out and zoomed straight for the tracking station. I was standing behind Frank and I could see the tracking station almost horizontally ahead. We rolled slightly to the right and then straightened up again and made a low pass just south of the USB antenna. All the staff were out on the southern lawn taking photos of the plane as it roared by a low altitude and we on the plane were taking photos of the people on the ground. As we passed USB Frank rolled the plane into a wide left 180o turn and we followed the main road into Carnarvon and went right up the main street at low altitude. I regret not looking at the altimeter at the time but my best estimate today is that our altitude was about 300 ft. We held that height for a second pass past the station and then back over the airfield and the town but on our third and last pass, we were at about 500 ft and then we started a slow climb and set track for Perth. The trip back to Perth was uneventful. By then I had used most of my film and I spent most of my time talking to the pilots and listening to their stories about the places they had flown to. We touched down at about 5:00 pm, with Roger and I standing behind the pilots again. The approach and touchdown were interesting. Unlike modern jets where the pilots wear headsets and communicate at normal voice volume and the pilots also control the throttles, in the Super Constellation, all flight deck communication was by talking loudly and on some occasions by shouting and because the four big radial engines needed careful monitoring, any changes to the throttle had to be done by the engineer who would change the throttles and then monitor and change other engine settings to accommodate that effects of the throttle change. Thus the descent and landing had to be a team effort with Captain controlling the plane by yoke and pedals but calling the power settings to the engineer. On descent Frank was controlling speed and attitude and he would shout throttle instructions back over his right shoulder, like "give me fifty". The engineer would make several adjustments and shout a reply "you have fifty", then after a while "give me forty" and the reply would soon be "you have forty". Eventually we were flying above the runway but without enough power to sustain flight and there was a gentle flare and the plane was running on the runway without the Captain having touched the throttles - not efficient by today's standards. After we landed the four-air crew obliged with a group photo in front of the nose wheel of the plane. To me that photo was a priceless memento of a wonderful day and when I later discovered that I had not focused the camera at all, I was very annoyed with myself. Roger and I drove back to Carnarvon the next day, well pleased with our trip. A few days later I was talking to a local school teacher, Greg Kerr. Greg told me that he had been in class, looking forward to a quiet end to the day when the Super Constellation flew right over his classroom. He said the noise was shattering and intensely loud. He said they all went outside to watch the second and third passes. Over the following months, many town people commented to me about the low passes. The most common comment was the awesome noise of the engines. There are probably locals in Carnarvon still who remember that day in November 1972 when a NASA Super Constellation flew up the main street of the town.
11 More Flybys
There were also more flyby visits during the Skylab series of flights. In about October 1973, another Flyby visit was due and I arranged again to ride on the plane. I think the Tracking Station Director was uneasy about my joy-flights and he scowled when I said I was going again. He scowl was an effective deterrent and no one else asked to go. This time the plane was a DC6B aircraft, a large four engined aircraft but not as heavy as the Super Constellation. The plane was under the command of Captain W T Morgan, but everyone called him Bill. I still have his card today. He was a very friendly fellow and we chatted away for much of the trip. On the way to Carnarvon Bill said that they needed to collect some equipment and he had been given permission to land at Carnarvon, which was a surprise to me. He expected to be on the ground for about two hours. He had asked a lot of questions about the tracking station so I offered to take him to the tracking station while we were on the ground. He said he would like to see the station but he was due back in America in about a week and there was a lot of bookwork that he had been putting off and putting off and he had made an unbreakable commitment to himself that he would do the book work while he was on the ground at Carnarvon no matter what. I understood his position and left it at that.
We had been on the ground at Carnarvon for only ten minutes when I noticed the local kindergarten with her class looking at the plane from behind the airport fence. I knew the teacher, Elly, from when she had previously worked at the tracking station so I went to talk to her. She explained that if anything interesting came to town, she would always take the children for a look. The children were excited and some of them asked if that could have a closer look so I went to ask Bill if it was OK for the children to come closer and walk around the plane. I knew Bill would say yes but it was good etiquette to ask anyway. Billy was sitting in the left pilot seat and had just started his book work when I went on board and asked him if it was OK for the children to come for a closer look. He looked out of the window and saw the children and immediately pushed the bookwork aside and went down the stairs and waved the children over to the plane. Bill couldn't help himself - he just loved children. Bill, who had told me he was a grandfather, was in his element as he showed the children all over the plane and took them up to the flight deck and even had some of them sitting in his captain's seat. He spent a long time with the children and then a truck arrived with some equipment and Bill got busy supervising the loading of the equipment and then we left and flew back to Perth. Bill's best plans about doing book work had come to naught.
One of the technicians on the DC6B flyby plane had also been on the Super Constellation when I rode on it about a year before. I gave him some photos of the crew and the plane and asked him to give them to the old crew when he got back. He said they would be very pleased to get the photos because they did not have any and it was all too late now. He told me that after the Apollo moon series finished. The Bendix Co returned the Super Constellation to the USAF for general duties. However, because the plane had been significantly modified firstly for McArthur and then again for NASA, the plane needed its own special USAF crews which did not suit the USAF's requirements of crew interchangeability so the USAF stripped the plane, flew it up to a base in Montana, took the engines out of it and then used the plane for gunnery practice. He said that everyone who had worked on the Super Constellation had loved the old plane and they were all sad when they hear of its fate. I was too.
12 FPQ6 Radar
The Q6 Radar was located about a kilometre north of the T&C building. Q6 was a classic skin tracking radar in that it radiated a signal at a moving satellite and then used to time interval that elapsed before a reflected signal was received to compute the distance to the satellite. The Q6 radar was a hydraulically driven tracking parabolic dish, about 12 metres in diameter, but its special feature was that it had powerful high speed hydraulic controls that enabled it to track very quickly and accurately. Another feature of the Q6 radar was that it had an 80-inch focal length telescope aligned on its focal axis that fed into a video tube that displayed a visual image on a TV screen inside the Q6 control room. Thus once the radar locked into a satellite, if the light was right, it was possible to see the orbiting satellite on the TV monitor. Although the telescope was an interesting instrument, Q6's main use was as a fast tracking radar.
The Carnarvon Tracking Station was on a local hill, Browns Range. The range was probably no more than 200 ft above sea level but it had a commanding view in all directions. All of the country to the north, east and south was flat and was used for sheep and cattle grazing. Most of the land was sandy with sparse grasses, frequent acacias and other small trees. Wedge tailed eagles inhabited the flat land and it was not uncommon to look out from Browns Range and see eagles orbiting in their territories. In the early years of Australia's rural development, many graziers believed that wedge tailed eagles killed and ate young lambs. In sheep grazing areas, it was common to see shot wedge tailed eagles strung out on farmer's fences.
Sometimes Q6 was very active and sometimes between missions, there would be quiet times. Dave Gardiner, a Q6 technician, told me the following story. The CSIRO had an open mind about the eagles and some CSIRO scientists arranged to do some experiments with the Q6 radar during on of its quiet times between missions. It was known that eagle pairs had defined territories and they also had preferred roosting trees. The scientists used the cover of darkness and snares and nets to catch some eagles and put a metallic reflecting leg band on them. Next day the Q6 technicians would scan the radar and find the eagle by the reflection from the leg band. The radar would lock onto the eagle and follow it all day and inside the control room would be a very precise three-dimensional printout of the eagle's every move. Also, when the atmosphere was not too hot and shimmery, the telescope could display a picture of what the eagle ate or carried back to its nest. As the experiments proceeded the technicians found that the Q6 radar was so sensitive that it could detect reflections from the eagles bodies without the need for a metallic band, but the power had to be turned up a bit and there was concern that if it was turned up too high, it may damage the eagle. As a result of the work that CSIRO did at Carnarvon and other sites, the CSIRO established that eagles on occasionally ate sick lambs but their main diet was rabbits, which was plus for the farmers.
While tracking eagles, the Scientists would sometimes follow a single eagle's every move for several days. The Q6 technicians soon observed that all of the eagles were early to bed and late to rise. At first the eagles were thought to be lazy but then it was realised that thermals do no start until the Sun has been up for a couple of hours and the thermals cease well before sunset so if an eagle got up too early, it would have to flap and flap to gain height - much better to rest a bit longer and then rise effortlessly on the thermals. The CSIRO scientists commented that on heavily overcast days when there are no thermals, an eagle has to go hungry or flap for height. If there is a week of overcast weather, the eagles become so exhausted that the old and sick may die.
Tony Green, who was a technician at Q6 when this occurred, told another story about the Q6 radar to me. It was during one of the later Apollo missions, possibly Apollo 16 or Apollo 17. It was normal for the rocket to blast into Earth orbit and stay in Earth orbit while everything was checked and then if everything was OK, the crew would fire the main engines for about thirty seconds and the spacecraft would blast off on a trajectory that would take it to the moon. On this particular occasion, it was night time in Australia and the Apollo crew was in Earth orbit, an orbit that brought them roughly over Perth and then over Kalgoorlie. Soon after Kalgoorlie, if all was well, the crew was due to fire the engines to go onto a lunar trajectory. NASA has an acronym for everything. I think the firing of the main engines to enter a lunar trajectory was called a TLI (Trans Lunar Injection). On this particular occasion, Carnarvon's Q6 radar had picked up the Apollo rocket west of Perth, low in the southwestern sky and was tracking it towards the east. As it turned out, the Q6 radar optical telescope was uncovered and the TV receiver was on but it was not planned to be on because it was dark and the rocket would not be visible over such a distance. The orbit was low and the Q6 radar was pointing only fractionally above the southern horizon when the engines were ignited for the TLI. During the TLI, Tony Green was attracted by something on the TV screen and then he realised that though the capsules could not be seen, the telescope was picking up the flames from the main engines and a distinct rocket flame plume was clearly visible on the TV screen for the duration of the TLI burn. Given that Kalgoorlie is about 1000 kilometres south east of Carnarvon and that the Q6 radar was pointing almost on the horizon, the light would have travelled through nearly 1000 kilometres of atmosphere before it was detected by the Q6 telescope and video camera. TO many people that may be a ho-hum event, but to me, who has experienced the frustrations battling atmospheric "Seeing" through telescopes, I believe it was a remarkable thing to see a man made flame through about 1000 kilometres of atmosphere.
13 Ignition spikes on the data
There were two steerable antenna arrays close against the northern side of the T&C building at Carnarvon. The aerials were used to receive telemetry from satellites. If the incoming signal was weak, interference like radiation from a car's ignition could invalidate the recorded signal. Sometimes before a particular satellite was due, the net would be used to advise all Carnarvon Tracking Station staff that ALL vehicle use was prohibited until a further notice, usually no more than 40 minutes, until the satellite passed over the horizon. Vehicle prohibitions did not bother me much but they were an inconvenience fro people who had to travel around the site to do their work, like the air conditioning staff or technicians or Daphne on her mail rounds. I recall one occasion when the net advised that a vehicle prohibition would start in five minutes time. I was about due to drive to the T&C building for lunch so I jumped in the SPAN site car and drove up to the T&C building and parked near the aerials and went inside for lunch, all before the car use prohibition started. While I was eating lunch, the site Operations Manager was on the net advising that there was a vehicle in use somewhere on the site and it had to cease immediately. Over the next thirty minutes he repeated the demand about five ore times, sounding more annoyed and serious each time. I remember thinking it was unheard of for trackers to ignore such a direction, but obviously someone on the site was ignoring it. After about 40 minutes, the vehicle restriction was lifted and I later heard that the safety officer was sent around the site to try and find out who had been driving when it was prohibited. I stayed talking to someone for ten minutes and then went out to get in the car and drive back to SPAN. As I was getting into the car, my foot bumped the throttle and I heard the motor give a quick rev up and down. Within a millisecond I knew exactly what had happened. I had, and still have, a habit of leaving vehicles idling instead of turning them off. It comes from driving heavy farm tractors and bulldozers and trucks where it is often better to idle a heavy diesel engine than turn it off. Also, there was a bank of large air conditioning heat exchangers with loud fans on the northern side of the T&C building and they had completely blocked out the sound of the idling motor when I had parked the car right under the aerials and gone inside for lunch. Not wanting to drive away and draw attention to the situation, I casually turned off the motor and went back into the T&C building, through the building and out another door and then walked back to SPAN. I knew the telemetry crew went off shift at3:00 pm so I waited until about 4:00 pm and then walked back and collected the car. Over the few days there was a witch-hunt to find the disobedient driver but I was never suspected. I suppose I should have told the telemetry people what I had done so they would not waste time fault hunting on their own equipment but I whimped out and did not tell anyone.
14 Canoeing near the tracking station
I have always owned a canoe or a kayak and although I was not sure that I would be able to use it, I took one with me when I went to Carnarvon.
When I had only been at Carnarvon for a few months, there was a lot of local rain. Most of the rain fell close to the coast but there was not enough rain inland to set the river running. Within a day or two of the rain, a huge lake of water gathered on the eastern side of the Tracking Station. The water extended north almost as far as the main road out to the bridge and south almost to the intermittent creek on the southern side of Brown's Range. On my next day off from work, I put my kayak in the water and kayaked around the lake for the rest of the day. By pushing my paddle down to feel the bottom I could assess its depth and its deepest part was roughly east of the Q6 radar where I estimate it was about 2 metres deep. The tall grass and weeds in the eastern side of the lake restricted paddling there but there was good deep paddling along the western side of the water where there were also some substantial white barked river gums that are common on water courses throughout Australia. The presence of the trees suggested to me that water often congregated along the western edge of the lake, though on this occasion there appeared to be significantly more water in the lake than was usual after normal rain.
I kayaked on the lake a few more times but within a couple of weeks the water levels had declined significantly and all of the water was gone altogether within about tow or three months. Over the next three years there were several periods of heavy rain and some big rivers came down but I never again saw so much water on the flat land east of the Tracking Station. It had to be substantial local rain to flood that lake.
15 An incredible but true story
Bill worked in the administration area of the Carnarvon tracking Station. I estimate that he would have been in his early fifties. Bill had been a policeman in South Australia before coming to work at the tracking station. Bill was one of nature's gentlemen, friendly, quiet and very sincere. One day the radio was blaring about a Perth policeman who had pulled his pistol and shot a man in the leg. The radio was hitting the moral high ground and saying how the policeman should not be allowed to use his gun. Bill said, "it's tough on police these days when they can't use their gun. I used to use mine all the time". I was surprised and asked Bill how many people he had shot. He said "none, but whenever you have to apprehend someone at a burglary, they will always run if they can. If you a fit young copper, you run them down but as you get older it's not so easy. If you shout 'halt' they run faster. If you shout 'halt' and fire a bullet over their head, they freeze and you can walk up to them and put on the handcuffs - works every time". I thought about that - made sense to me.
One day I collected my lunch tray in the canteen and sat down and Bill sat opposite me. He looked unusually weary. I commented that he looked tired and asked if he was OK. He said he was OK, but I noticed that he had scratches, like he had been in a fight. I said, "what happened to you Bill, you look like you have been roughed up." He smiled and said, "Well I was roughed up, I fell in the ocean". Bill then told me a story that left me speechless and I will narrate it here as accurately as I can remember. On the previous weekend, Bill and his wife were being visited by their daughter and son in-law. It was nice weather so they went for a drive up to the blowholes, on the coast, about 50 km north of Carnarvon. The Blow holes is a hole in the rock, about 30 metres inland where the incoming waves compress the air under a rock shelf and a mixture of pressurised air an spray blow vertically through the hole and into the air. On a good day, depending on the sea that is running, the spray will consistently blow 25 metres into the air. In the area of the blow holes, the coast line consists of a rocky shelf about 30 metres wide at sea level and then a cliff about 3 metres in height and then smoothish rock running back to the dunes. Being at sea level, the waves crash across the shelf and cover it with a mass of angry foaming water and then the waves recede and expose a surface that has been cut and abraded by a million years of savage waves that have sculptured the surface to be like the cutting edge of a giant rasp and there are a million sharp edges and rocks that could cut to the bone. For about the next thirty kilometres north from the blows, the coast line has the same character with the ledge varying erratically from 20 metres wide to 80 metres wide and the cliff height varying from as little as 2 metres up to ten metre in height but always the shelf is a formidable mass of sharp and cutting rocks. At times when the tide was out, and if you were wearing heavy boots, you could go down onto the rock shelf and grab a few oysters but it is a dangerous place to linger and you didn't stay there long. On this particular day, Bill and his family were at the blowholes for a while and then they drove north for about ten kilometres to where a pastoralist's fence met the sea. Bill and his family were walking along the rocks above the cliff edge. There was an average sea running with waves breaking across the shelf but there was no sign of what was to follow. Bill must have been on a lower piece of cliff than the others for suddenly he found the water was rising around him. It was a big wave but not an angry crashing wave, more like a localised rise in the sea level than a wave. All of the shelf was covered with deep water and the water rose over the cliff and swirled around Bill. A the water receded Bill tried to stand firm but it was all over in a few seconds as he was knocked off his feet and bundled across the rock shelf and out into the deep water. Bill did not know what to do. He thought of trying to catch a wave back to the cliff but even if he did that, it would then carry him back out over the rock ledge again and he had been lucky to survive that once and he might not be as lucky next time. Bill's wife and daughter and son in-law wanted to help but what could they do. They remembered that back at the blowholes there was lifebuoy on a post for such occasions and so Bill's son in-law jumped in the car and raced back to get the lifebuoy. When he returned he made signs to Bill that he was going to throw the lifebuoy out with a rope so he could pull Bill back. Bill swam a bit closer to the ledge and his son in=law waited on the cliff edge, waiting for the right wave to throw the lifebuoy onto and have it float out to Bill. But the sea was in a deceptive mood and although normal waves crash across the ledge, about every ten or fifteen minutes there would be a big wave where the whole sea would rise and deep water would flow across the shelf. When Bill's son in-law saw the right wave coming, he got as close to the cliff edge as he dared and prepared to throw the lifebuoy when suddenly he too was surrounded by water and then knocked over and washed out to sea. Bill's wife and daughter were distraught. A very serious situation had become twice as serious. By now Bill had been in the water an hour and how long could he last? The two women drove back to the blows where there were some fishing shacks. There was a man with a small boat but it was too small to go out into the ocean. About twenty kilometres away there was a mine where Texarda Co pumped brine out of the water table under Lake McLeod and evaporated the water in big bays and exported salt by the shipload from Cape Cuvier. Texarda employed about 80 people, most of whom lived in Carnarvon, but Bill's wife and daughter drove to the mine to seek help. It was a Sunday and they were lucky to find any one but they found a Texarda employee and told him they needed help. He used the radio to summon help and soon there were men coming from all directions but what could they do, how could they get two people back across the rock shelf and onto dry land. They jumped in vehicles and headed back to the coast, hoping that Bill and his son in=law would still be alive. They were alive but cold and fatiguing. The men from the mine realised they need a plan and some of them raced back to the mine to look for things that could help. They hatched a plan and scrounged up the equipment and headed back to the coast. One man dressed in five sets of overalls, put on heavy boots and put an inflated car tube around his waist. They also had a second inflated rubber tube, a huge tube from a mining dump truck. Ropes were tied to both tubes and the large tube was placed on the cliff top where it would be washed out to sea by the next monster wave and heavily clad man sat in the big tube, waiting for the ride of his life. By now more men were arriving from the mine and other places, all eager to help. Normal waves were crashing on the rock shelf but once every ten or fifteen minutes a monster wave would come tight in and up to the top of the cliff. When the right wave came the men on the shore played out the ropes and the big tube and its passenger were washed out to where Bill and his son in-law were. They made a decision that Bill would hang onto the car tube and the men on the coast would pull it in on the next monster wave. When the right wave came, the men on the coast hauled on the rope and brought Bill and the car tube right in across the rock shelf and up to the cliff edge where Bill was grabbed by the many eager hand of men who were anchored by ropes around their waists back to more men. But the now receding water was strong and despite the men's best efforts, Bill was dragged out of their grip, back across the rock shelf and into the deep again. The car tube was sent out again on the next big wave and this time the man in the heavy clothes tied Bill into the smaller tube. Bill was hauled in on the next monster wave and this time when the mean grabbed him, they also had a rope on the car tube and they held Bill until the water had all gone and Bill was safe at last. By the time that he came ashore Bill had been in the water for four hours. He was exhausted, had accrued some cuts and abrasions and was close to hypothermia from the cold water but was otherwise OK. They brought Bill's son in-law in on the next big wave and the man with all of the heavy clothes came on the following big wave.
Bill was surprisingly unfazed as he told me the story. I was amazed and in awe of the man who had the nous to work out a solution and the guts to go through with it. Bill said that when he got ashore he was so exhausted that he hardly knew what was going on and his son in-law was in a similar state and also their wives had been so distraught that when it was all over none of the four were thinking clearly and after they got back to Carnarvon they realised that they had not adequately acknowledged and thanked the men from Texarda. Indeed Bill said he could not remember much about them but he intended to go and find them and thank them. A couple of days later there was a small article in the Carnarvon paper that reported that two men had been washed into the Ocean near Quobba and were later rescued. It is regrettable that the reporter was not given more details because there was a good news story there and it should have been written up in detail. I also saw a notice in the paper from Bill and his family expressing their thanks to all of the people who had helped.
16 Influence, real influence.
Ian Mitchell had trained in the Royal Navy and was working as a technician at the Tracking Station. Ian was a very good amateur actor and I knew him well through the local Repertory Club, of which we were both members. Prior to working at the Tracking Station, Ian had worked in the Carnarvon office of McRobertson Miller Airlines (MMA). One day Ian came to rehearsals, still shaking his head about an event that had occurred that day at the airline.
MMA operated a daily Focker 28 jet service to Perth. The plane would normally arrive about 11:00 am and depart a bit before midday. One day Ian had dispatched the plane to Perth and was working in the Airline's office in the main street. At about 1:00 pm a Japanese looking gentleman came into the office and sat in one of the waiting room chairs. Ian continued with his work and after a while the gentleman approached the counted and asked when he could catch the next plane to Perth. Ian assured him there would be a plane next day at midday and that there were plenty of seats still available. The gentleman looked troubled and said he needed to catch the very next plane to Perth and there must be one before tomorrow. Ian assured the gentleman that there was no plane until the next day and the gentleman asked where he could make a telephone call. Ian could have let him use the MMA telephone but instead Ian referred him to the public telephones at the Post Office. The gentleman thanked Ian and left but ten minutes later he was sitting in the waiting room again, calmly sorting through his papers. Ian found the man's presence irritating because he could not stay in the waiting room until the next day's plane and Ian made a conscious effort to ignore the gentleman. About ten minutes later Ian received a telephone call from a senior MMA manager in Perth who asked if there was a gentleman sitting in the waiting room. Ian confirmed that there was and the manager continued, "We have diverted the Derby to Perth plane to Carnarvon to pick up the gentleman in the waiting room and the plane will be there in ten minutes. Please give the gentleman all possible assistance and take him to the airport now and assist him to catch the diverted plane with as little inconvenience to him as possible". Ian did exactly that. His last contact with the gentleman was when he thanked Ian as the plane door was closed. Ian did not know who the man was or why he was so influential. We speculated that he may have been an iron ore buyer from Japan but we never did know.
17 Stealing the Flag
The rocket that carried man to the Moon and back was the Apollo rocket and the whole series of experiments and flights were generically referred to as the Apollo series. When I arrived at Carnarvon, the Station was gearing up to Apollo 14. When Apollo 14 lifted off, I was thrilled. While I had previously been an interested observer and sat in my living room and awed at Armstrong and others walking on the moon, this time I was inside the tent. Though I was a very small cog in a very big machine, I was at least a part of it and I was thrilled to be so.
Other people took it equally seriously. I do not know whether it was a NASA imposed edict or just a Carnarvon custom but whenever there was a moon mission in progress, NASA's Apollo flag flew on the flagpole outside of the main entrance to the T&C building and the flag stayed there until the astronauts splashed down and then the flag was taken down until the next Apollo launch.
Apollo 17 was the last of the moon missions, being launched at 721207/0533 GMT and splashing down about 721219/2000 GMT. Being the last ever moon mission, I spent quite some time eyeing off the Apollo flag. I would love to have had the flag as a souvenir. Don or I, depending who was on shift, would usually arrive at work in the dark and first go to the T&C building to get the solar observation teletype messages that had come in during the night. On early mornings during Apollo 17 I took particular notice and realised that although the flag area was well illuminated by the light that flooded out of the windows of the T&C building, the many night shift workers inside the building would not see out at night because the strong lights inside the building reflected back at them from the inner surfaces of their windows, thus preventing them from seeing things that were less illuminated outside of the window. So, if I wanted the flag, all I had to do was get it in the predawn darkness when I went to get the early teletype messages. I decided that on the last day of Apollo 17, I would souvenir the Apollo flag. I had a few days to wait but the more I thought about it, the more I realised I should not take the flag. If someone else took it, I would be outraged so what gave me the right to cause outrage to other people. So when the big day came, the last ever of the Apollo series, I took my camera to work and took photos of myself and my friends sitting on the bench at the flag pole, the pole that was for the last ever time flying NASA's Apollo flag.
18 A real fright
When I was ten years old I made my first canoe from a rusty piece of roofing iron. Since then, I cannot remember a time in my life when I have not owned a canoe or a kayak. When I was a student, I canoed and kayaked on some of the country's big canoe rivers, the Nymboida, the Clarence, the MacLeay and many others. I took my kayak when I went to Carnarvon, though I did not expect to get much use for it. On my second weekend, I went and had a close look at he Gascoyne River. It was very disappointing. It was just a flat bed of sand about 200 metres wide, no channels, no water, just flat dry sand. I decided that the Gascoyne river was a flop.
I had not previously kayaked on salt water. I found kayaking on the channels through the mangroves was more fun than I had expected and sometimes I would go with others and we would explore around the mangroves. On some occasions I went with Paul Drench, who had a three-person canoe, to a place north of the river mouth where there was group of semi mangrove channels in the dunes behind the beach and we had some good kayaking times there. The area was storm exposed and sometimes when we would go there the sea would have opened new breaks to the sea and closed old ones.
In the spring of 1971, there was a lot of rain in the headwaters of the Gascoyne River and a couple of weeks later a reasonable flood came down the river. I had been waiting for a chance to do some real kayaking and so myself and some friends drove about 40 kilometres up the Gascoyne Junction road and then carried the kayak across and put it in the river. I had no doubts about my plan. The Gascoyne River would be a pushover, it was in flood like a big red slug, there was a reasonable current and I would just kayak back to Carnarvon. I started on a channel about 50 metres wide and it seemed rather dull and I stroked along making unkind comparisons about east coast rivers and the Gascoyne. But very soon I joined a much larger channel and I realised that I was now on the main river. It was more than 200 metres wide but because it was all moving along at a uniform speed, it has a look of calm about it but when I passed a big white barked gum tree that was in the centre of the river, the current was really roaring around the tree and that concerned me because I knew then that I was on really fast water, maybe the fastest water that I had ever been on. Up ahead, there were a few more trees and I could already hear the water roaring around then and I moved over to within 25 metres of the left bank. Soon I had trees on both sides but the channels were still easy to pick and on I sped. But the trees cam on thicker and thicker and there was an increasing roar of the current tearing at the trees and I lost sight of the banks altogether as I fought to twist and turn and keep from getting caught in trees. Current will take a kayak around a solid obstacle but current goes through tree heads and I was aware that one false stroke, one misreading of the current and I could be caught in a tree like a fish in a net and the current would jamb me into the tree and maybe skewer me with branches. And the trees became even more numerous as I fought with turns and twists and backstrokes, ducking under limbs, zooming across currents to look for a better path and never knowing what lay ahead. I was at full power every stroke but I had to be calm because one bad decision and I could be history. And so on we went, man and river locked in a contest - sometimes the water was rough, sometimes smooth but always fast and accompanied by an intimidating roar. When I could, though I rarely had a choice, I would veer to the left hoping that I would see the bank but then a vein of trees, as thick as a hedge would send me zigzagging back to the right to loose what I had gained. I had not bothered to bring a life jacket and I was tiring and I knew I was in trouble. And suddenly I broke out of the trees and I could see it was clear water for at least the next kilometre and the roar was receding behind me and I looked to both sides and could see that I was in the middle of a wide fast river. It was peaceful, the noise had gone, and the water was fast but calm. I could see more trees a long way ahead so I started to move towards the left bank. I then saw that my friends had stopped to see me go by so I paddled over to them and abandoned the trip and put my kayak back on the roof racks and went home. I had chanced may arm and away with it but it was folly to keep going when I did not know what lay ahead.
When I back on it, it was all bit like Mulga Bill's bicycle. Mulga Bill thought he knew a lot about bicycles but he cam unstuck. I thought the Gascoyne River as a wimp of a river for kayaking, but I was very wrong.
19 What a fizzer
In February 1973, a Czech astronomer, Lubos Kohoutek, photographed a new comet. There was nothing unusual about seeing a new comet but when other astronomers managed to confirm its existence and identify its trajectory, they realised that it was still a very long way out in the solar system. For a comet to be visible at such a great distance meant that it was an incredibly big and bright comet. Further calculations established that by the time that the comet passed close to Earth (perihelion was due on 26 December 1973) the comet would be as bright as two full moons in the night sky. All over the world, scientists and the general public were excited about the forthcoming event. NASA took comet Kohoutek so seriously that the launching of the third Skylab crew, which had been scheduled for October, was deferred until 16 November so that the astronauts cold conduct Kohoutek focused experiments around the time of perihelion.
I recall that in about August '73, a cook at the Tracking Station, Shirley McLaughlin, was planning to leave her employment and start a restaurant in Carnarvon. She was unsure what to name the restaurant and discussed it with Brian Renshaw and me. We suggested that she name it The Kohoutek restaurant because she planned to open it about the time that Kohoutek would be noticeably growing in brightness. We told her that everyone would be talking about Kohoutek and she couldn't get a bigger and better and cheaper advertisement that that. Shirley considered our advice but in the end she name it the Rendezvous Restaurant. Maybe she knew more than we did.
In October, NASA asked SPAN to commence photographing the comet and send daily photos to Boulder. We had a white light system on eth side of our Razdow telescope so we made some modifications to it to enable us to attach a camera and we would start our shift an hour earlier so we could photograph the comet while the sky was still dark. Our Razdow was not well equipped for night time tracking by coordinates so it took us a few days to be able to point into the darkness and know we were pointing at the comet. Also, when viewed from SPAN, Kohoutek was above the eastern horizon in the direction of the T&C building and our telescope was picking up scattered light from the outside lights at the T&C building and the red safety lights on the USB antenna. Initially the Station Director would not let us turn off the lights, due to safety concerns, but eventually he agreed and we were able to increase out exposures to about 30 seconds and the quality of our photos improved significantly.
By November, Kohoutek should have been getting noticeably brighter but it was not happening, Scientists were beginning to question why Kohoutek was not getting brighter and we too could see from our photos that it was not brightening up in the way that everyone expected. It now appeared that for no known reason, Kohoutek has been incredibly bright when it was first observed but lost brightness as it came closer. Scientists were then and still are baffled by the decline of Kohoutek and at its apparent brightest, in December 1973, you could just see Kohoutek with the naked eye if you knew where to look and had a good imagination.
And so that was the end of that. Kohoutek, which was going to set the world abuzz and the biggest brightest ever comet, is better known as the comet which promised so much and delivered to little,
20 Wild flowers and kangaroos
Some people say WA has a wild flower season like July, or September. Having worked at Carnarvon and other WA towns, I say there is no set season except that when it rains, you get some wild flowers and the more it rains, the more wild flowers you get. That axiom certainly held true on the sandy soils of Browns Range. I recall some occasions when there was a very substantial rain and the wild flowers were prolific. Most of the tracking station was a sea of yellow and orange flowers. Sometimes, again depending on the weather, eth flowers would stay vivid for weeks. Other times, if rained on, they disappear quickly.
Another consequence of the weather, which was probably a lot more noticeable in the 1970s when the country was less fenced than it is now, was the mobility of the kangaroos. Moist ocean air would move eastwards over the warm land and be driven up by thermals to develop scattered cumulous storm heads. The storm heads would usually dissipate before they developed much but a few would go on and develop into substantial thunder and lightning storms. Most of the storms were dry but some would drop rain. Rain from a thunderstorm cell is usually very localised and may be only one or two kilometres in diameter. As the storm moves across the country it may lay a trail of rain a couple of kilometres wide and maybe twenty kilometres long before it is all rained out and fades away. In a normal summer, the rained on land may be less than one per cent of the overall land area but somehow the kangaroos knew where the green grass was and they turn up and graze on the green pick. I recall driving from Exmouth to Carnarvon one evening and there was an area where there had been rain and evidence that the table drains had been full and the grass was shooting green. There was a section of road about five kilometres long where I would have seen more than a hundred kangaroos, and I saw none at all for the rest of the trip. I was back there about a week later and I advised a friend to expect to see many kangaroos when we passed the area at which I had previously seen so many. This time we did not see one kangaroo. They had grazed out the area and gone who knows where to a new patch of freshly rained on earth.
21 Dolphins at Monkey Mia
One day in 1971, Bev Robertson, Bob Houghton, Sharon Scarff and I went for a camping weekend in the Shark Bay area. We spent most of one day at Monkey Mia. At the time, there was nothing there except a very small dilapidated jetty. There were a few other campers, most of whom were there for the fishing. We spent some time walking around in the water and soon being escorted by three friendly dolphins. By friendly, I mean they swam in close and were eyeing off anything that we had in our hands in case it was food and they could entice us to give it to them. There were some people there cleaning fish and the dolphins would check them out too and wait for fish scraps. One fisherman was joking about how fussy the dolphins were. He threw each a fish head, which they hesitated to accept but they were quick to accept when he threw each of them a whole fish. The people said that they often visited the area and the dolphins were usually there every day - sometimes the numbers varied a bit but mostly it was three. I watched them for a long time and all of their responses indicated that their interest in man was to merely hang around and hope for a free handout. While I thought they were interesting animals, I saw their behaviour as not more sophisticated than that of the seagulls that badger you for a crust if you eat your lunch in a park in a seaside town.
Twenty years later, I visited Monkey Mia again with Sharon and our two boys. I was amazed to see that government officials and the private sector have turned the dolphins into a massive industry. People come from all over the world to have deep and meaningful communications with the dolphins and people write PhDs about the brilliant dolphins. It is the emperor's clothes all over again, it's an industry that is built on its own hype. There is hardly a wild animal in the world tat will not develop a relationship with man once it realise that it will get free food and not be hurt. It seems to me that man's relationship with the dolphins is on no higher level than man's relationship with pigeons in the city - and who is writing PhDs about pigeons.
22 You never know who is listening
When I lived at 29A Babbage Island road, Carnarvon, I could stand at our front door and have a direct line of sight to the Carnarvon swimming pool, which was a bit more than half a kilometre away. One Saturday morning I was sitting in the sun outside our front door, not particularly doing anything and I heard voices over the public address system at then swimming pool. This was unexpected because it was winter and the pool was closed. I did not take a lot of notice until I heard some very blue language so I paid more attention and listened. It took me a while to work out what was going on but I realised that although the pool was deserted, there must have been a radio receiver turned on and it was somehow leaking into the public address system because the voices that I could hear were communications between the crews of different trawler boats that were working off the coast at Carnarvon. The crews were talking about their catch and about the manager of the processing factory at Carnarvon and about their girlfriends and anything else that crossed their mind. Their expressions and language were very crude and it was all at an amplified level so that hundreds of the town's people could hear it all. After a while I saw a car drive to the pool gates and a man hurried inside and then the public address system went quiet.
Although I knew a few of the people who worked on the boats, I did not recognise any of the voices or names so it all went over my head but I am sure that some of the town's people did recognise names and I wondered what the crews who were talking so freely would have thought if they knew that hundreds of people could hear their every word.
23 Chess at SPAN
At SPAN, we were usually very diligent about our work but sometimes we slacked off a bit. I recall a period when we played a lot of chess. A game might start at lunchtime and we would all stand and watch, and sometimes comment, until the game finished which may have been hours. Harry Whitworth was the site safety officer. Harry was always bouncy and happy and every weekday, about midday, Harry would come to SPAC and flick a few switches and check that the fire alarms still worked. Harry was always welcome at SPAN. No matter what may have occurred to mess up your day, Harry would arrive smiling and laughing and he would brighten up the place. Harry would often stop for a chat and a cup of coffee and occasionally for a game of chess. Harry had not been playing chess for all that long but he fancied his skills as a chess player. Liz Beckett was an equipment operator at SPAN and she had never played chess in her life. Harry offered to teach her and he showed her the moves on the board and then they played a game where Harry did his own moves and helped Liz with hers. A few days later Harry offered to give Liz another chess lesson but Liz said in jest, "I can remember all the moves Harry, I could beat you now": so Harry set up the board and said, "OK, let's see if you can beat me". Liz was out of her depth and lost a pawn immediately. I was standing behind Liz and by then several other people were standing behind Harry, watching the game. Liz commenced another dangerous move and I felt sorry for her. I was standing right behind her and without any planning or thinking, I pushed my thumb into her back, which I hoped would make her reconsider the move. Her hand stopped, poised above the board and without planning I moved my thumb slightly to the upper left. Her hand followed and stopped when I stopped and she placed the piece on the board. She remembered enough about the moves so that once I got her hand to the right place, she could see where to place the chess piece. And so the game proceeded. To Harry and the others it looked like Liz was playing a slow and ponderous game but by then, although no words had been said, she and I knew exactly what we were doing. After about an hour Harry had lost - apparently outplayed by a complete novice. Harry was not used to losing and he went away, very angry with himself. As soon as he was out of range Liz and I burst out laughing and the others laughed too when we told them what had happened. Next day, someone told Harry because they thought he would enjoy the joke but he did not see the funny side and he went away, cranky at all of us. Next day, Harry was his normal self and everything was forgiven. I liked Harry a lot. He always brought an air of happiness, well nearly always.
24 I call that real stress
I had my share of ups and downs in my first year at SPAN. The problem was that the Radon telescope was performing below specification and the SPAN supervising technician argued that everything was OK. There were some very heated clashes and often a smouldering background tension. One afternoon after the technicians had gone home, I was sitting at my desk at SPAN when Brian Gray came in and sat down for a chat. Brian was a diesel engineer from the powerhouse. He was very good at his job, was always happy and smiling and was respected by everyone on site. He had come to fix some SPAN equipment but on this occasion he seemed more interested in sitting and talking. After a while he said "I've been watching you and I think you need a rest". This caught me by surprise. Don had been off work a bit and I had been doing long shifts but I enjoyed the work and did not think that I was stressed and so I was surprised at the seriousness with which Brian stated his view. We had a long talk about work stress and how you recognise it in yourself and in others and what to do about it. In the end, if I was stressed, I did nothing about it and I continued to work long shifts, if for no other reason than because there was no option, but I didn't anyway.
In our discussion about stress, I asked Brian why he had such an interest in stress and he told me a story that left me speechless. Brain has trained in the Royal Navy and spent many years in submarines. Brian said that for submarine work, you needed the right type of people, people who do not break when under stress. He said that during the 1950s and the early 1960s, when the cold war was at its hottest, he had worked on submarines whose brief was to go into the Barents Sea, north of the Russian sea ports, and take records of all ships going in and out of the Russian ports, particularly Russian navy ships. Brian said they would sneak in to within a few miles of the harbour mouth and lie there for weeks and just collect data. They were in Russian territorial waters and if anything went wrong there was no one to ask for help and Brian said it needed a special sort of person to take the stress of such a job and so he had acquired the skills of an amateur psychologist by watching other people. Brian said that on several occasions their submarine had got stuck in the mud on the bottom for days at a time. They would have to work out a strategy of using the tide and their engines to break free, knowing that they only had finite reserves of air and power. Brain said that was real stress. I thought about that and decided that in comparison to being stuck in the Russian mud, my job at SPAN was a bed of flowers.
Australian Space Academy