I first saw the remnants of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station on a bushwalk in the early 1970's - an abandoned building, vandalised, with broken windows. ''That's the old tracking station for the moon landings,'' someone said.
As a teenager I had watched that first moon walk on TV with awe, nor had the fascination faded. But I still had no idea how vital that building high in the mountains had been.
In the years that followed I saw government departments decline to take responsibility for it. The station was finally demolished. The records of one of mankind's most extraordinary achievements were assigned to the rubbish dump.
Twenty years later, on the way to his Honeysuckle Tracking Station reunion, the man I had married in the meantime, Bryan Sullivan, took me there again. All that remained were concrete slabs. We stood there on what had been the antennae pad as a bikie group heaped wood for a bonfire on it, and Bryan told me the story: how a young president Kennedy demanded the impossible - a manned moon landing by the end of the 1960s. Young scientists and technicians took on the challenge, for most experienced hands said it could not be done.
A network of stations to track the spacecraft was needed across the world. Honeysuckle Creek was one of them, built high in the mountain wilderness of the Southern ACT because it was isolated from man-made electrical noise. (The deep space facility at Parkes had only minor roles to play in the Apollo program. The movie The Dish is fiction.)
It was not easy to build a tracking station in the ACT mountains, especially not back in the early 1960s. The road washed away; blizzards blocked the path; there was an incident with a cow on the Tharwa bridge which was hard to explain to the insurance company; a telephone line was laid from gum tree to gum tree on little porcelain insulators - all the problems of high technology in the wild.
But they did it. Honeysuckle was to be vital in the Apollo program, and not just because of its position: it was the only station that designed and built an Apollo training and testing capability that allowed Honeysuckle to appear to directly command the spacecraft's computer. Honeysuckle's pioneering software also proved invaluable in the near disaster of Apollo 13, and much, much more.
The moon bobbed above the ridge as we stood there, sending moonlit shadows across the mountains, dark and gold. ''That's what we waited for,'' Bryan said. ''The moment when the moon rose and we had line of sight and acquired the spacecraft signal.''
He told me the story of July 21, 1969, waking with excitement knowing that the Eagle might land on the moon that day; the icy drive from Canberra with others on his shift, each of them focused on what might go wrong, arriving to find that Honeysuckle Creek had listened, as did tracking stations across the world, as Armstrong was unable to land the Eagle at the designated site; how he flew with almost superhuman skill and few seconds of fuel to spare; how the computer system appeared to crash but a young programmer from MIT gave a thumbs up. The computer recovered itself and carried on.
At last they landed safely.
''What did you do first?'' I asked.
''Threw out the night shift's cigarette butts and wiped the ash off the computer console keyboard,'' Bryan said. ''And then suddenly I heard Armstrong tell Goldstone the astronauts wanted to skip the rest period and walk onto the moon early. That meant that we'd be prime station for the moon walk, not Goldstone as planned, because the moon was setting at Goldstone and rising at Honeysuckle.''
Bryan's counterpart, John Saxon, in the other room, was talking to someone else. Bryan waved his arms to attract his attention then held up one finger: listen to ''net one''. All that state-of-the art technology, but that vital signal was still a wave of the arms and a single finger raised.
And so those images were first beamed down to Honeysuckle Creek. Bryan and the others in the operations room were the first to see them - a delay had been built in so that the images could be turned off if there had been disaster.
''How did you feel?'' I asked Bryan.
He looked at me, puzzled. ''Mission accomplished. There wasn't time to feel anything else.''
''But you must have felt something!''
''We just focused on what we had to do, and then what we had to do next, and what might go wrong. Any glitch could have doomed the mission.''
Fifty years later, as I look at the photos of Bryan, his colleagues and those at Mission Control Houston, they all have same expression: total and complete focus, and mental and emotional dedication to getting humankind to the moon and back.
That night up on the antennae pad was one of the most beautiful I have known: the moon above us, the mountains, and the silence, for all around us the bikie group was listening to the story too. When Bryan had finished they began to haul the wood from the antennae slab - there would be no bonfire that night on the remaining remnant of the station where such extraordinary things had been achieved. I don't think Bryan even noticed as they lined the track on either side of us as we walked down to the car.
And yet memorials of the Apollo program are all around us today. We use the internet and emails, born from the communications between the tracking stations across the world; we have the biometrics pioneered as surgeons monitored the astronauts' biomedical data 24 hours a day: we have improved power fuel cells and so much else.
But even more importantly, the Apollo program also inspired us to think of ourselves as citizens of Earth, a small blue miraculous planet spinning in the darkness. It gave us some of the tools to care for it, like multi-spectral terrain photography that allows us to see the changes and damage to our planet. The advances in remote sensing led to Landsat and its foreign counterparts like France's SPOT (Satellite pour l'Observation de la Terre). They also led to Skylab's ability to monitor both the sea surface and sea floor of Earth via radar surveys, to make global maps that would be impossible using any other method. Books could be written about all that was devised by the mostly unsung technicians of those days, who worked for the joy of it, not for royalties and riches.
One day, perhaps, that technology may be forgotten. But those mountains will still be there, and the moon will still rise above them, and it will be beautiful.
Honeysuckle Creek is Canberra's Camelot, a dream of greatness that was fulfilled, and then vanished back to wilderness. But we will always have the most important memorial of all: no matter what our future, we can point to the moon and tell our children: "Humans walked there, and came home."
To the Moon and Back by Bryan Sullivan with Jackie French is published by Angus and Robertson
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