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One small step for man, one giant leap for… Australia

When discussing space and all of its firsts, people tend to think about Russia and the US with their competitive mindset in the early 1960’s, shipping off both animals and humans into space for the race to be the first space explorers of our time. However, space exploring is so much more than that -- and even though many think of the two countries when it comes to the ‘firsts’ in space explorations, many other countries have contributed in their own ways. In fact, even Australia has a few ‘firsts’ of our own when it comes to space exploration.

The very first, ‘first’

Let’s start from the beginning. The very origin to space exploration was offset by two countries during World War II, who both wanted to be the pioneers in rocket science and space science. The former Soviet Union was the very first ‘firsts’ by launching their space program in the early 1950’s, successfully putting Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, launching the first man into space in 1961 as well as the first woman in 1963. The US eventually caught up and NASA was created in October 1958 as a national defence program meant to compete with the Soviet Union and their accomplishments. NASA advanced very quickly, but before they launched their first successful rocket to the moon, Apollo 11 -- which many know as the moon landing, Australia had sent their very first satellite into space. WRESAT, Australia’s first satellite that launched in 1967 from Woomera, South Australia was the third satellite in the world to be launched with the aim to further understand weather and climate patterns. The project took 11 months to design, build and finally launch; and this was the first big step for Australia in joining the forefront of space exploration.

Apollo 11 moon landing

On 20th of July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man in the world to set foot on the moon with his infamous words: “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The whole world watched with awe as the three men in the Apollo 11 space shuttle set out where no man had been before to take space exploration to a whole new level. Broadcasting this precious moment though was no easy task, and NASA sought help from three different telescopes - Parkes Observatory in New South Wales (NSW), Honeysuckle Creek in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in Australia as well as Goldstone in California. Initially, Goldstone was supposed to be the primary receiver telescope for the worldwide broadcast, but the in the first few minutes the broadcast switched between the three telescopes, trying to find a strong and consistent signal. After a while, the stronger signal at Parkes Observatory (aka the Dish), with its huge radio antenna of 64 metres in diameter, took charge and broadcasted the remainder of the lunar walk.

Unfortunately, the broadcasting was not as smooth as one might have hoped for. Just a few moments before the launch of the space shuttle, the Parkes telescope got hit by (the classic) unexpected Aussie weather and took a blow from 110 km/h wind gusts. The whole telescope was almost smashed to pieces, but thankfully it withstood the storm. The staff at the Parkes Observatory in NSW had a few busy hours but were granted with a memory of a lifetime being a part of this historic moment in history.

Parkes Observatory in NSW has been a huge contribution to NASA’s space exploration given its size and complexity. Credit: CSIRO

Even to this day the Parkes Observatory is seen as one of the best performing radio telescopes and is still working on behalf of NASA on several major projects. Recently, they became the first telescope to observe a chiral molecule in space -- that is expected to help researchers understand more about the origins of life in the universe. But that is a whole new complicated topic about ‘firsts’ that we will hopefully discuss further in the future.

Discovering a “new” planet

Apart from assisting in the Apollo mission, Australia also played a vital part in the project to deepen our understanding of Pluto. It is a project that followed over a nine-year-long travel of the piano-sized satellite, “New Horizons” to the planet Pluto to get more accurate photos of the previously thought of the dwarf-planet we have known so little about for the first time in history.

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex also referred to as Tidbinbilla, is a part of NASA’s Deep Space Network stations together with Goldstone in California as well as Madrid Deep Space Communication Complex in Spain. When it came to deciding on which telescope would be the lucky one to receive the first images of New Horizon’s mission to Pluto, Tidbinbilla in Canberra was a clear winner due to the size and suitability of its three telescopes at the site. The project launched in 2006 for a nine-year-long journey, taking the satellite more than five billion kilometres. The crew at Tidbinbilla were prepared to receive the images that took almost 18 months to reach the earth again. The probe found a lot of interesting evidence on its journey -- not only is the surface of the planet more orange-red than previously thought, but it is also one of the youngest surfaces ever seen, formed no more than 100 million years ago. The largest dish, DSS43 is massive; it stretches over 70 metres in diameter and weighs 4000 tonnes, making it the largest one in the Southern Hemisphere.

Dr Kruzin is the Director of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex and he spoke very proudly of the opportunity given to them.

“We are extremely proud that we as 92 Australians are playing this key part and [we feel] enormously privileged to have this opportunity. [...] We will get it done because we are Aussies, we always do, and we have never dropped a mission and we probably never will”.

Thanks to Dr Kruzin and his team at Tidbinbilla we now know more about Pluto than ever before. Also, the image many had of Pluto as a tiny dot at the end of our solar system has now been substituted with a clear image of a planet with an icy surface of mountains and peaks rising close to 3,500 metres.

A completely new way for all to see the intricate details of Pluto’s surface. Credit: NASA

And many more firsts

Apart from these major milestones in Australian space history, there are other ‘firsts’ to remember.

The Curiosity Rover out trotting about on Mars’ surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex assisted in the landing of the Curiosity Rover that landed on Mars in August 2012 with a mission to further explore the surface of Mars. The mission was to investigate whether or not Mars has had a habitual environment in the past that have been able to support life forms. With much joy, the Rover found traces of minerals and chemicals on the surface that have been able to support small life forms called microbes. This project, in turn, led to a numerous of private organisations within the space sector to focus in on Mars as their next big objective, not only to explore further but also to potentially launch humans to create a habitable environment. SpaceX founder Elon Musk early on set his sight on Mars exploration and hopefully even a human settlement on the red planet, and he is currently kicking off his project of SpaceX’s first private passenger flight around the moon that is expected to launch in 2023. Other companies, such as Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin to name a few, are also setting their sights to go where no man has yet been.


Australia was also the first country to fine NASA for littering when the Skylab space station crashed in Esperance in 1979, which caused a stir among the population residing there. The fine was set to $400 dollars -- an amount that went unpaid for 36 years until the state of Western Australia finally wrote it off. On a funny note though, a radio DJ in California started a fundraiser to pay off NASA’s fine in 2009 despite it being written off. Could this be another ‘first’ in the history of fines?

Australia may have been late to the party (in regards to having our own Space Agency); but with our extensive past involvement in various major milestones in space exploration, we are sure that Australia will be having many more first shortly!  

Written by: Karin Ericsson

Edited by: Laila Amal and Samuel Lindsay

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