The unsung Aussie who let 600 million see humanity's great achievement
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The unsung Aussie who let 600 million see humanity's great achievement

It was the moment that united the world like no other.

On July 21, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon - July 20 in Houston, but the following day in this part of the world.

At four minutes before 1pm Australian time, astronaut Neil Armstrong took a small jump off the spacecraft's ladder and bounced slightly on the lunar module's landing pad.

He tested the lunar surface gingerly with his foot before taking the final step, saying the immortal words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Tom Reid at Honeysuckle Creek tracking station.

Tom Reid at Honeysuckle Creek tracking station.Credit:Andrew Tink.

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Six hundred million people watched the black and white television pictures live - but where did they come from?

A new book lays out the crucial role a group of Australians played in bringing that event to the world.

Its author, Andrew Tink, argues that the record needs righting to give full recognition to the role played by Honeysuckle Creek tracking station near Canberra. The 2000 fictionalised movie The Dish may have been good drama, but it was not good history, he says.

For the historic first six minutes of the broadcast, mission control took its video feed straight from the ACT-based tracking station.

At that point, the moon hadn't risen sufficiently for Australia's other tracking station, Parkes, to the north in New South Wales, to get a good signal - and the tracking station in California had let mission control down.

Author, barrister and former politician, Andrew Tink.

Author, barrister and former politician, Andrew Tink. Credit:Elizabeth Tink

So Honeysuckle Creek provided footage of the crucial moment when history was made.

If Honeysuckle Creek hadn't worked efficiently, nobody would have seen that "giant step for mankind" Mr Tink, who has researched the events thoroughly, even listening to recordings made by NASA at the time and piecing together the sequence of events, says.

He says the controller in Houston suddenly said, "All stations, we are switching video to Honeysuckle."

That they did, capturing the moment before Parkes took over.

The book, Honeysuckle Creek: the story of Tom Reid, a little dish and Neil Armstrong's first step, is as much about the station as it is the man who ran it - who happens to have been a friend of the author.

Tom Reid was a gravel-voiced Glaswegian who joined the British navy, then the Australian navy, and ended up settling here. He sailed into Sydney Harbour and never forgot it, Mr Tink says.

Reid had graduated as an electrical engineer, but Mr Tink says his management skills were as important as his technical ones.

As the newly appointed director of the station, Reid realised NASA was disatisfied with its performance, particularly as the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union took on huge political significance in the Cold War.

The survival of Honeysuckle Creek - and even the success of the American space program - depended on the station upping its game. So he shook the place up, Tink says, getting rid of the people he believed were underperforming.

He moved highly qualified engineers and replaced them with less qualified people who nevertheless could perform better in crises.

"Tom Reid was called in to sort Honeysuckle out, which he did," Mr Tink says. "He was pretty ruthless about it".

And the management lessons?

Mr Tink says there are several: relentlessly pursue perfection, be hard and unsentimental in selecting people to work in teams, and sometimes the most qualified people aren't the best if they can't cope with pressure.

He thinks the story of Honeysuckle Creek matters because it is giving rightful honour both to an overlooked Australian achievement and to an overlooked Australian achiever.

He says Tom Reid only mentioned the drama of those six minutes to him once, when he said "it hadn't been planned that way, but that's the way it was. And goddamn, we were ready."

Steve Evans is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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