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CCCR’s Ursula Frederick wins National Trust Award

CCCR’s Frederick wins National Trust Award for Significant Contribution to Heritage for her exhibition ‘Promised the Moon’

By Bronwyn Watson

On July 21, 1969 (AEST), an estimated 650 million people huddled around television sets to watch Neil Armstrong’s take “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on the surface of the moon (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo11.html). The televised event linked people around the globe and was a powerful collective experience. However, little did people realise at the time but there had been a last-minute glitch in the receiving of that moon footage.

It wasn’t initially planned this way but the first eight minutes and 51 seconds of broadcast, including Armstrong climbing down the steps of the Lunar Module, stepping onto the moon, and uttering his famous words, was only possible thanks to a remote, high-altitude space tracking station located in the bush just outside of Canberra.  The pivotal role in the moon broadcast by the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station (https://www.industry.gov.au/news-media/australian-space-agency-news/australia-and-the-first-moon-landing) really came about because it happened to be in the right place at the right time in terms of the moon’s position. This meant that the tracking station’s 26-metre dish was able to receive images from the camera mounted on the bottom of the Lunar Module. NASA chose the images that Honeysuckle Creek received to then broadcast to the world.

Originally, two other tracking stations were supposed to receive the images that would be broadcast. The first one, a radio telescope in California at Goldstone was also receiving the images at the same time as Honeysuckle Creek but due to human error and technical issues - someone forgot to flick a particular switch - Goldstone ended up with upside down pictures from the Lunar Module, which couldn’t be used. Additionally, a 64-metre radio telescope at Parkes (https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Astronomy/Spacecraft-tracking/Apollo-11-Moon-landing), in central west NSW, was supposed to receive the images but unexpectedly Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin decided not to have a nap before the moon walk. This change of timing meant that the Parkes radio telescope couldn’t get a signal from the moon, so it was the pictures from Honeysuckle Creek that the world saw.

Honeysuckle Creek and the ACT hold a special place in the exploration of the moon. Honeysuckle Creek, for instance, was purpose-built for the Apollo missions and it was supported in the ACT by the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station (now Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex https://www.cdscc.nasa.gov/Pages/cdscc_historyapollo.html)

Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, an exhibition, backed by the ACT Government under its Heritage Grants Program (https://www.environment.act.gov.au/heritage/heritage-and-the-community/heritage_grants_program), celebrated Canberra region’s role in that occasion. The exhibition, titled Promised the Moon: 1969-2019, was initiated and curated by Dr Ursula Frederick, a University of Canberra Postdoctoral Research Fellow in UC’s Centre for Creative and Cultural Research (https://www.canberra.edu.au/research/faculty-research-centres/cccr) in the Faculty of Art and Design.

For Frederick’s work on the exhibition, she was recently a recipient of a prestigious National Trust Outstanding Contribution to ACT Heritage award (https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/news/national-trust-of-australia-act-heritage-awards-2020/). She says that she had wanted to do an exhibition on the moon landing for some time and one of the primary motivating factors was that there was going to be an anniversary. “ACT Heritage was quite ahead of the curve in many ways because they had mentioned it in one of the grant funding schemes that space heritage would be one of the potential priorities,” she says.

“I thought that was a great opportunity and I had a real urge that something interesting could be done. I had also been aware of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station’s role, but I was also aware that many people were not aware of Honeysuckle Creek’s role. Honeysuckle Creek really hasn’t been given its due in terms of the hard work and effort that a lot of people put in. This was largely because of the influence of the film The Dish in terms of popular culture, which had Parkes as broadcasting the footage. Also, I had a kind of interesting connection because my dad had worked at Tidbinbilla in the mid-1960s as an engineer, and so, it all came together.”

The exhibition highlighted the work of 14 artists, all of whom had a connection to the Canberra region and produced new work for the show. Their work can be viewed online at https://promisedthemoon.net.au/exhibition/. Frederick says that art can add to our understanding of the moon landing. “Ultimately images and different modes of representation are really important to creating those stories that endure and I think the pluralism of voices is really important in these big events and these big histories so that we can unpack some of the hidden stories and the more subtle aspects. Even when the Apollo 11 mission was taking off NASA commissioned Robert Rauschenberg (https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/galleries/series/stoned-moon-1969%E2%80%9370) to memorialise the event in art. There is a legacy to recognise the role that artists can bring in terms of a unique appreciation of an historical moment. Artists have a creative freedom to explore in a way that the engineers, the astrophysicists, and even the historians don’t necessarily have.

“And it was so fantastic for me because the artists put a lot of thought into the exhibition. They all got on board to do it, and like many artists they did it for the love basically. I was really excited that they did such beautiful work.”

Frederick says that an important part of her Outstanding Contribution to ACT Heritage award was that Promised the Moon: 1969-2019 had “an afterlife”, an online presence after the exhibition closed. The award’s judges were also impressed by how the exhibition’s website invited anecdotal observations from the public, who contributed stories such as recollections of sitting on cold lino in a packed school assembly hall to watch the moon landing on a fuzzy grey television screen (https://promisedthemoon.net.au/moon-stories/).

“It is this huge big story but it’s something that many, many people have this intimate connection with, which is kind of part of that nice optimism that we are all connected through this somehow,” Frederick says. “I think it is exciting that ACT Heritage saw the potential in artists reflecting on heritage and I’m really indebted to the artists for wanting to celebrate this vision and jumping on board wholeheartedly. There was commitment and enthusiasm and if it wasn’t for them the show would not have existed. It is my name on the plaque but really it should be all the artists as well.”

Cover Photo:

Artists from Promised the Moon gather with former employees of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Splashdown, and the closing of the exhibition. The centrepiece is Tom Buckland’s artwork Canberra Living Room Fragment (2019) which conveys Honeysuckle’s pivotal role in the mission -- transmitting the first televised minutes of the moonwalk back to Earth. Photograph: UK Frederick, 2019