Kennedy Was Not Data Driven - Australian Involvement in the Apollo Missions

Mel O'Sullivan - July 21, 2020

"When JFK announced early in his term that the US was going to put a man on the moon and return him within the decade, he apparently didn’t consider that this would put them on the moon during solar maximum, which happens roughly every 11 years.  It meant that special consideration would be needed to keep the astronauts safe from radiation, particularly proton radiation which is one of the major ones thrown out by solar flares.  So the team was set up to make observations of the sun every five minutes and report on activity"

Margaret Hurle Solar Observer Culgora Solar Observatory 1968-71

My mate Maggie was a Solar Observer at the Culgoora Observatory during the Apollo 7 - 13 Missions 1968 - 71. Yes - THAT Apollo Mission.

The Culgoora Solar Observatory was dismantled and replaced with the Australia Telescope Compact Array and is located 25 km west of the town of Narrabri, in north-west New South Wales. The facility is open to the public.

On 19 February 2020 Prime Minister Scott Morrison officially opened the Australian Space Agency on the site of the former Royal Adelaide Hospital.

I think it's safe to say Kennedy wasn't driven by Radiospectogram Analytics when he set the Space Race deadline. It is interesting to speculate on what the cost difference in the missions may have been if NASA had been able to wait until the solar maximum passed. Fortunately, Prime Minister Morrison has access to a much larger and more refined dataset  to enable decision making - not to mention a completely different political climate.

If, like me, you are fascinated by the idea that Australia is shortly going to experience a boost to its space industry there are a few really interesting public access datasets you can take a look at. The Bureau of Meteorology also has a link to the World Data Centre.

It turns out the present generation did not invent text messaging. The NASA team communicated through a Teletype System - by copper wire transfer of communications a few generations up from Morse Code. Maggie and I spent a wonderful lunch one day reading through the declassified transcripts of some of the missions in real time. I can tell you that not all of the communications were strictly scientific, and that it was possible at the time to joke with other operators by wire - but I won't be allowed to say much more.

Maggie very kindly sent me a quick summary of her involvement with the Apollo Missions.

"Apollo 7 was the first crewed flight of the series, October 1968.  It didn’t leave earth orbit, and tested a lot of the techniques that were going to be needed on subsequent flights.  I wasn’t there for the launch.  I returned to work for the final part of the mission.

Apollo 8 was the first one to go to the moon, orbit it, and return to earth.  It was a huge step, and was the first one where our work was essential.  We were supposed to have a team of four working shifts to cover the 15-hour days, but two of the team quit so two of us worked seven days on and seven days off, 15 hours a day.  I stayed at the astronomers' lodge at the observatory so I didn’t have to drive to and from Narrabri every day.  The flights came thick and fast after that.

Apollo 9 March 1969, Apollo 10 May 1969.  They were becoming routine….. Both around the moon and back.

Apollo 11.  I wasn’t working for the landing, so I watched it at home.  The moon walk was scheduled for our sunset, and we hadn’t expected to be operational during it.  But Armstrong and Aldrin decided to skip the sleep they were supposed to have, and bring it forward about four hours.  So Culgoora was fully operational for the walk.  Although I wasn’t there for the landing, I returned to work with a different attitude to the moon.  It was no longer remote and unattainable.

Apollo 12.  I remember it as a series of things going wrong, but lots of things went right.  They fed the wrong instructions into something early in the flight, and it went into the wrong orbit.  On the moon surface, they pointed a TV camera at the sun and it failed.  And they left a roll of film behind.  But everything else went well, and the mission was a success.

Apollo 13.  The one when our solar observations were important during the flight as well as while they were on the surface.  They spent most of the flight in the lunar module because of damage to the command module, and had no radiation shielding.  It was really intense.  That was the last one I worked on.

They were never on the surface of the moon.  The landing was aborted, and they went around the moon and came home.  That’s why Tom Hanks said, “We just lost the moon”."

The original Apollo program was for 19 missions but the final two were cancelled.  By late 1970 our budget had been cut and our hours reduced as the sun was becoming significantly less active."

I just think it is incredibly cool that I know a lady who worked for NASA at such a pivotal time. Maybe we might have the opportunity to make our own contributions.

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