Sidmothian recalls Moon walk mission

PUBLISHED: 16:26 18 July 2009 | UPDATED: 09:42 18 June 2010

WHERE were you when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on to the moon? Sidmothian John Austin, 67, can well remember, as he played a vital role in the UK during the mission.

WHERE were you when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on to the moon?

Sidmothian John Austin, 67, can well remember, as he played a vital role in the UK during the mission.

He did a double shift at BT's Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station, as a technician in its control room, as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin guided Apollo 11's lunar module to a safe touchdown in the moon's Sea of Tranquility.

On Sunday, July 20, 1969 Goonhilly relayed historic live pictures from the US to British TV sets after they were transmitted across 250,000 miles of space via satellite.

On Monday evening, July 20, a 40th anniversary celebration for 100 people, to include presentations by leading astronomers and authors, will be held at Goonhilly, where a genuine piece of moon rock will be displayed at the special exhibition.

John's job, known as aerial steering, was to ensure that Goonhilly's Antenna One dish 'Arthur', built in 1962, stayed locked on to the satellite, relaying the broadcasts as it tracked across the sky.

He said: "I remember it all very well. I had just done a 12-hour daytime shift, but, such was the importance of the moon landing, I was asked to stay on for the 12-hour night shift to ensure everything went according to plan.

"We had a relatively new person on duty aerial steering that night, but thankfully everything went like clockwork.

"I was shattered by the time the second shift finished at 8am, though I felt very privileged to have seen it all happen. It is something I will never forget. To be there at the time was quite an experience."

John, who lives in Woolbrook Meadows with wife Viv and dog Max, added: "There was a lot of excitement in the control room but also a lot of stress and worry as to whether the equipment was going to keep going because you occasionally had faults on equipment and they could go off track."

Technology has progressed astonishingly since those early days. Goonhilly's Elliot 803 computer which was used to track satellites, such as Telstar, filled the equivalent of a large living room.

But its 4K memory possessed a fraction of the processing power of today's home computers.

"Input and output to this machine was by teleprinter," said John. "Keyboards and TV-type screens to read the output did not exist.

"The electronics to drive the aerial from the prediction tapes produced by the computer consisted of nine full-height equipment racks.

"There were hundreds of cards with transistors, resistors and capacitors - but not one integrated circuit in the whole thing!

"It's hard to believe what has happened in the last 40 years. It makes you think. There were no digital watches, no mobile phones, and, of course, no home computers.

"You couldn't get a calculator, I used a slide rule. I wouldn't like to be involved today because it is too automatic. A lot is done by fibre optic under the sea."

John, spent 24 years at the Goonhilly station as a technician and then later 10 years as aerial steering group manager.

*Tickets for Monday's event, which starts at 7.30pm, are available from (01872) 325 400.

Michael Dunn, BT's regional manager for the South West, said: "This is a big day for the Earth Station and for everyone that has been involved with it.

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