Baldivis man’s important link to Moon landing

Stuart HortonSound Telegraph
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Camera IconCaption needed here Credit: Picture: Pierra Willix

Fifty years on from Neil Armstrong taking man’s first step on the Moon, a Baldivis retiree has recalled the role he played to ensure one of mankind’s greatest achievements was able to happen without a hitch.

Barry Weighell, who has lived in Baldivis for the past 37 years, was the officer in charge of a staff of six at the Mullewa communications station when Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on July 16 1969 and when Armstrong stepped from the module on to the Moon on July 20.

While the role of the Carnarvon Tracking Station, built in 1963 specifically for use by NASA for the Gemini program, is fairly well known to Australian space buffs, what is less known is the role the Mullewa station and its staff played.

Mullewa had an integral role in maintaining communication between the three lunar-bound astronauts and the capsule communicators.

Mr Weighell worked in technical communications for Telecom/Telstra for 40 years but said nothing was ever quite as crucial as this role.

“It was the only communication up to the tracking station, and on the communications there was a line the astronauts could speak back to Houston on and two data lines that were transmitting all the data back to Houston from the spacecraft as it went overhead,” Mr Weighell said.

“There was no such thing as satellite communications in those days, so the landlines were the only way of getting communications back to the States. There was only one pair of lines north of Mullewa up to a repeater station at Curber about 250km north, then on to Gascoyne Junction to another repeater station before going on to Carnarvon.

“During the critical periods on the flight, which extended to about eight or 10 hours at a time, those three stations had to be manned just in case anything went wrong. They only had that one link from Carnarvon to the rest of the world.

“The other reason Mullewa was vital was coming into Mullewa there were multiple links — they split the data lines across multiple links so if one went down and the other was working. But from Mullewa to go north there was only one link so if anything went down there was no alternative, it had to get fixed so communications could be restored.”

Mr Weighell’s role was to co-ordinate staff from Mullewa to manage the three stations, which he recalled as a “stressful period” because of the inevitable pressure from NASA that everything run smoothly.

“When you were on duty (NASA) would do a random call on the order wire and they expected you to answer within 10-15 seconds, otherwise there were questions asked,” he said.

“They put a lot of pressure on ... we had to have someone next to that loudspeaker all the time ready to respond immediately.”

The mission went off without a hitch, and NASA relayed afterwards that the global communication links ran at “about 99 per cent” efficiency, including all the overland links and undersea cables.

“I believe it was fairly critical to the extent that if that communication link to Carnarvon had gone down NASA would have aborted the countdown procedure,” Mr Weighell said.

“It was one of the major data transfer points after the spacecraft launched. After it got out of range of the American communications, Carnarvon was the next major point that it got to. The next one after that was in the eastern states, then back to America. It would have been an abort take off had the link gone down.”

NASA gave orders not to listen to communications between the astronauts and Houston, but Mr Weighell said of course staff did.

“It was interesting listening but there was nothing critical. They were just getting commands out of Houston, ‘Roger’, ‘Roger Wilco’ etc,” he said.

“Although I’m pretty sure the order to go towards the moon was transmitted from Carnarvon.”

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