Fifty years ago, the streets of major cities across the globe were empty, as Earthlings – some hundreds of millions of them – were fixated on the black and white glow of television screens.
People, no matter creed, political party, or ethnicity, bonded over a moment in time that extended the limits of humanity and set new goals for the decades to come.
It was, eloquently described by Neil Armstrong, as “one giant leap for mankind.”
But what has been lost, and in some respect not even considered, is how these spectacular images of Armstrong making the first steps onto the moon found their way to more than 600 million people July 20, 1969.
Not only does South Surrey’s Jasper Wall have knowledge of how the transmission made its way to the third planet, he helped facilitate it.
Wall, a professor for the department of physics and astronomy at UBC, was a 27-year-old PhD student working under astronomer John Bolton in 1969.
He was on a residency in Australia, conducting extra-galactic radio astronomy at the Parkes Observatory. His work involved observing transmissions received by a 64-metre tall radio telescope. His job was to observe the most distant objects in the universe.
In 1968, after failing to complete a build of their own usable dish, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contacted the observatory and requested that Parkes be used in the Apollo 11 mission. The telescope was intended as a backup if the two other Australian telescopes produced poor signals.
Bolton responded, and insisted, on a one-line contract with NASA: “The Radiophysics Division would agree to support the Apollo 11 mission.”
At showtime, NASA had three telescopes trained on the moon, receiving data for the live feed. However, the Parkes signal was unparalleled.
“It got the best signal,” Wall told Peace Arch News Wednesday. “After five minutes of faffing around and deciding which picture to show the world, NASA said, ‘Parkes. That’s the one, stick with that, for two and a half hours.’”
However, the iconic images almost never made it back to Earth, for a number of reasons.
NASA had scheduled Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to take a five-hour nap after they landed on the moon.
Wall said that once the astronauts got the Eagle to settle on the moon, Armstrong had a heart rate of 150 because he’d had 10 seconds left of fuel and no place to land.
“He said: ‘How the hell do you think we’re going to have a quiet five-hour sleep when we’re on the moon?’” Wall said.
“So NASA said, ‘Alright, go ahead.’”
At that moment, Wall said, Parkes staff were under the impression that they weren’t going to be able to receive the transmission because the moon wouldn’t be in sight of the dish.
“But it took them four hours to get the space suits on, which NASA hadn’t realized either… Finally, it works out that we picked them up a few moments into the space walk.”
Wall said the celebration didn’t come until after their mission was complete.
“At the time, when we picked up the signal and watched the slow scan on our screen, the black and white… ‘Jesus Christ, there’s a man on the moon and we’re picking it up and his heartbeat is 112 – that’s not bad.’ We could see everything. Every monitoring of everything. What he said, his body condition, everything.”
However, there’s yet another issue that could have resulted in a world without iconic moon landing footage. And that’s because NASA didn’t intend to film it all.
There was a concern about the weight of the technology needed, and the corresponding amount of fuel to carry the additional load.
“There was a very heated debate within NASA whether to film it at all. Finally it was, by acclamation, people said it’s ludicrous if we do all of this and don’t beam the pictures to the American people. They won’t stand for it,” Wall said.
Wall said the significant role Parkes Observatory played isn’t well known, and he provided a number of explanations.
“NASA doesn’t show too much of us because, A, it’s kind of a failure on their part and, B, this is a NASA show.
“They don’t really want it to be generally known that the greater success of all of these billion people watching TV, was watching TV that Parkes had provided.”
Asked to address the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory, Wall laughed and provided some context to the rural lifestyle where the Parkes Observatory is located.
“If you were doing a NASA hoax, supposing the whole thing was filmed by NASA and Steven Spielberg, then the last place you would involve would be an Australian country town where the gossip machine is just crazy,” Wall said.
Wall’s isn’t the only connection South Surrey and White Rock has to the incredible feat.
Geophysicist and university administrator David Strangway, who passed away in 2016, was the chief geologist for NASA during the Apollo 11 mission.
White Rock’s Susan Strangway, David’s daughter, vividly remembers her father bringing moon rocks to her classroom for a show-and-tell.
His job with NASA, Susan said, was to analyze samples and even communicate with astronauts who were bouncing on the surface of the moon.
“His time at mission control was key because he was the guy communicating with the astronauts. Telling them what to pick up and what to leave behind,” Susan said.
Part of Strangway’s role was to analyze moon rocks brought to Earth. Between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions brought back 382 kgs of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust.
Strandway worked with NASA until 1973.
In an article from Physics Today, Strangway said he designed the experiment that was eventually sent on Apollo 17. It was an electromagnetic sounding experiment designed to look at the magnetic and electrical properties of the moon.
Susan and Strangway’s other daughter, Patricia Forrest, recalled the time their father brought moon rocks over the Canada-U.S. border.
Strangway was bringing the rocks to his University of Toronto laboratory for further analysis. When crossing the border, the sisters said, he was asked if he had anything to declare – animal, vegetable or mineral.
“Apparently, what he said was ‘just a bunch of moon rocks,” Forrest said. “Customs went, ‘Oh, ha ha.’”
They sent him on his way, but hours later, in the middle of the night, customs came knocking.
“They brought him the proper forms to sign because it’s hard to imagine what to sign for things not of this Earth. Generally, there are no forms,” Susan said.
When Strangway passed away on Dec. 13 at age 82, it was, of course, the night of a supermoon.
“It was like it was saying goodbye to him,” Patricia said.