On the 20th of July 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.
It was, to quote Armstrong, ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ in which a small town on the West Australian coast played a vital part.
But, Carnarvon is better known for its bananas than its role in helping NASA get man to the moon and the following extraordinary rescue of Apollo 13.
The lunar mission’s three man crew was heading towards the moon in April, 1970 when the spacecraft’s oxygen tank exploded.
Jim Gregg was one of the technicians working at the Carnarvon space tracking station as it played a crucial role.
He says the situation was very serious with both time and oxygen were running out.
“The chances of getting the crew back were very low.”
Mr Gregg says technicians and engineers worked day and night to bring the crew back alive as the station provided the spaceship with the data needed to steer it back towards the Earth.
‘We essentially worked out what needed to be done and sent the commands to the vessel,’ he says.
At the time, Alison Gregg was the local correspondent for the West Australian Newspaper and was in the tracking station’s observation room adjacent to the control room during the operation.
She says she could see and hear everything that was happening.
“Everyone was concentrating furiously. I get goosebumps now just thinking about the intense concentration,” she says.
“Nobody could possibly do anything but the job they needed to do. There was no talking, no nothing, expect for the contact with NASA in Houston.”
The rescue operation took four days.
“It’s entirely remarkable that they got themselves back,” Mr Gregg says.
“When we realised that they were coming back alive, the whole place just went ape.”
The coastal town of Carnarvon, with a then population of about 2000, was home to the largest NASA space tracking station outside the United States in the 1960′s and 70′s.
It was the perfect location because several orbits of the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft passed over that part of WA.
Paul Dench was the first engineer to make the station’s pay roll and managed the facility for some years.
He’s the main author of a soon-to-be-released book about the social and political history of the facility.
“I didn’t think Carnarvon’s role in the Moon Race had been given enough weight in our history,” he says.
“The story had to be told but when I started researching, some of the material was still under 30 year protection in the National archive so I couldn’t access it.”
Mr Dench says the station brought a lot of buzz to the town.
The first ever live television broadcast from Australia to the rest of the world was in fact from the streets of Carnarvon.
Mr Dench says the book has been a long time coming.
“There was a unique relationship between the town and the station and between the local people and the trackers.”
Mr Dench says most of the 230 station staff were brought to Australia from the United Kingdom.
“They arrived to this town where there was with no television and only a manual telephone exchange,” he says.
“It would have been a real culture shock.”
From 1963 until its closure in 1975, the Carnarvon Space Tracking Station supported a range of scientific and exploratory missions through NASA’s race to put a man on the Moon.
The release of the book ‘Carnarvon and Apollo: One giant leap for a small Australian town’ coincides with the 40th anniversary of the rescue of Apollo 13 on April 11, 1970.