Cornish Moon Memories
Cornwall is celebrating its own unique contribution to the magical moment when a man stepped on to the moon forty years ago. BT’s Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station relayed the pictures of the first moon landing to TV screens all over the UK.
The early hours of Sunday July 20 1969: millions of people were still awake to watch the 'live' footage. The American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin guided Apollo 11's lunar module safely down on to the moon's Sea of Tranquility.
It was all thanks to Goonhilly's giant Antenna 1 - since nicknamed 'Arthur' - that the pictures could be seen in this country. First, they were transmitted across a quarter of a million miles of space to stations in Ascension Island, Australia and the USA. From the US, they came via a satellite to Goonhilly on the Lizard Peninsula.
From Goonhilly, the images were sent using a microwave link to the BBC and ITV in London and on to the European Broadcasting Union network for viewing across Europe.
People who were working in the control room at Goonhilly on the historic night have especially clear memories. Pip Greenaway from Truro, who's 66, was a technician there when the landing happened. He says, “There were only seven of us there at the time including a couple of American observers, I think from NASA.
Display at the Nasa JFK Space Centre
“It was pretty exciting to see those pictures come through all the way from the moon and we were all crowded around the monitors watching that first step taken by Neil Armstrong.
“It was such a great achievement and a real privilege to be there at Goonhilly at the time. We were amazed at the huge step forward in technology even then, and just look how far we have come since.”
John Austin, now aged 67 and living in Sidmouth, spent 24 years at the Goonhilly station as a technician and then later as a manager. His job in the control room at the time of the moon landing was known as Aerial Steering: he had to ensure that Goonhilly’s Antenna 1 stayed locked onto the satellite that was relaying the broadcasts as it tracked across the sky.
He says, “I remember it all very well. I had just done a 12-hour daytime shift, but, such was the importance of the moon landing, I was asked to stay on for the 12-hour night shift to ensure everything went according to plan. We had a relatively new person on Duty Aerial Steering that night, but thankfully everything went like clockwork.
“I was shattered by the time the second shift finished at 8am, though I felt very privileged to have seen it all happen. It is something I will never forget. To be there at the time was quite an experience.”
Goonhilly's Antenna 1 - 'Arthur'
In those early days of technology, Goonhilly’s Elliot 803 computer which was used to track satellites, such as Telstar, was the size of a large living room. But its 4K memory had a fraction of the processing power of today’s home computers.
“Input and output to this machine was by teleprinter,” says John. “Keyboards and TV-type screens to read the output did not exist. The electronics to drive the aerial from the prediction tapes produced by the computer consisted of nine full-height equipment racks. There were hundreds of cards with transistors, resistors and capacitors – but not one integrated circuit in the whole thing!
“It’s hard to believe what has happened in the last 40 years. It makes you think. There were no digital watches, no mobile phones, and, of course, no home computers.”
The 1,118 tonne Antenna 1 ‘dish’ has become a well-known tourist attraction in Cornwall. It was built in 1962 and now has Grade 11 star listed status.
last updated: 21/07/2009 at 11:27
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