There were once seven tracking stations dotted across Australia that supported both human and robotic missions.

Tracking Stations Down Under

Island Lagoon - South Australia
Island Lagoon was the first deep space station to be established outside the United States. The Australian government was already working at this site with the government of the United Kingdom on rocket and satellite research. It began as a trailer installation in 1957. The Island Lagoon site at Woomera (Deep Space Station 41) was established in August 1960. By the 1960s the station was installed in permanent buildings and was a major unit in the network. The station was operated by the Australian Department of Supply and provided support for missions until the 22nd of December 1972.

Muchea - Western Australia
Muchea was opened in 1960 for Project Mercury, phase one of the American goal of landing a person on the Moon. A small plaque installed in the place occupied by the communications technicians console reads: ‘this plaque is to mark the spot where an Australian first spoke to a space traveller.’ The Australian was Gerry O’Connor, communications technician at Muchea, and the space traveller was astronaut John Glenn aboard Friendship 7. The station was closed in 1964.

Carnarvon - Western Australia
Carnarvon was built in 1963 for the Gemini Program. Replacing Muchea, the much larger complex used some of the equipment utilised for Project Mercury. The station was closed in 1974.

Cooby Creek - Queensland
Cooby Creek 22.5 km north of Toowoomba, was built in 1966 to support the Application Technology Satellite Program. The station was closed in 1970.

Honeysuckle Creek - Australian Capital Territory
The Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station was built for the Apollo manned missions to the Moon. It played an integral role in the Apollo 11 mission, providing the first historic pictures of man walking on the Moon, Monday, 21st July 1969. Apart from the telecast for television, Honeysuckle Creek had voice and telemetry contact with the lunar module. In 1974 at the conclusion of the Skylab and Manned Space Flight activities, Honeysuckle Creek joined the DSN as Deep Space Station 44. When the site closed in December 1981, the 26-metre antenna was relocated to Tidbinbilla and renamed Deep Space Station 46 where it is used for spacecraft positioned close to the Earth.
Honeysuckle Creek website

Orroral Valley - Australian Capital Territory
Orroral Valley was used to support Earth orbiting satellites as part of NASA’s Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN). The construction of the complex was completed in May 1965. The station supported the cooperative USA-USSR Apollo/Soyuz project in 1975 when American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts linked vehicles in Earth’s orbit and carried out joint experiments in space. In December 1985, the station was closed as part of a consolidation of NASA facilities in Australia. Today much of the work of Orroral Valley and Honeysuckle Creek is handled by the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system (TDRS).

Tidbinbilla - Australian Capital Territory
Originally known as the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Instrument Facility, the station was developed for communicating with deep space probes and to add support to the early manned missions. Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, officially opened the station on the 19th of March 1965. This complex is the only NASA tracking station still operational in Australia today.

Birth of the DSN
The human fascination with the world around them has prompted the exploration of our planet, from climbing the highest mountains, to plunging the greatest oceans depths. Equally, our fascination with the universe around us has taken humanity from the relatively safe confines of the Earth’s biosphere into the black, unforgiving vacuum of space.

The space race began on the 4th October 1957, when the former Soviet Union launched a rocket carrying a tiny 83.6kg aluminium sphere named Sputnik-1 into Earth orbit. For the first time an object built on Earth was in space - the first artificial satellite.

On 2nd January 1959, the Soviet Union launched the Luna 1 spacecraft, followed on the 3rd of March by the United States with the launch of Pioneer 4. Escaping the Earth’s gravitational pull, they reached the Moon, passing above its surface before eventually going into an orbit around the Sun.

These two craft heralded the advent of interplanetary travel. The scientific community could now seriously begin looking towards the Moon and the planets as objects of exploration.

To accomplish this, a communications network was needed that could receive and transmit information and instructions between the spacecraft and controllers back on Earth.

Early attempts by the US Army to launch robotic spacecraft were supported through a series of ground stations set up in California, Nigeria, and Singapore, that were managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In December 1958, JPL was transferred from the US Army to the newly formed NASA, and a decision was made to form a more comprehensive arrangement of receiving stations, the Deep Space Network.

These stations would be responsible for the tracking and relay of information between mission operations centres at JPL and their interplanetary spacecraft.

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