Leaving a footprint
Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley
As the 50th anniversary approaches, it is a good time to reflect on the date of 21 July 1969 when over 7 million people world-wide gathered together in homes and workplaces, school halls and auditoriums to witness the very first moon landing. Televisions around the world transmitted footage of Neil Armstrong’s descent from the Eagle lunar module onto the surface of the moon and heard the immortal words “It’s a small step for (a) man, a giant leap for mankind.”
But how many people knew then or know now, that this global historical event was, due to a small technical difficulty, received and relayed to the world from Honeysuckle Creek, a space tracking station just outside of Canberra? In fact, the ACT was host to three tracking stations in the 1960s at Tidbinbilla, Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley.
Antenna at Honeysuckle Creek (Images ACT)
But time and technology change, and the stations at Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley, as with so much of Canberra’s built space history are gone, decommissioned and dismantled. It has been claimed that up to 8,000 people worked at the sites during their twenty-odd years of operation. But the sites, which form part of Namadgi National Park still serve as places of pilgrimage for interested space fans. These days areas that were once bustling hubs of scientific discovery and technological innovation are camp sites where the community can enjoy quiet contemplation and a few dozen kangaroo sightings. But this wasn’t always the plan. The debate over the use of our historical space sites is Archive ACT’s July Find of the Month.
Canberra and the Space Race
The Commonwealth Government leased land to the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) in the early sixties. Orroral Valley was part of the Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN) and was used to monitor scientific and earth orbital satellites. A site was selected in 1963 and purchased in 1964 from a Mr. P Greenfield who was permitted to use some of the area for agistment. The station became operational in 1965 and was officially opened in 1966. It was not involved with the Apollo missions, but was used during the space shuttle program and the re-entry of Spacelab.
Honeysuckle Creek was one of three 26-meter antennas commissioned by the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN) equally spaced around the world. The other two were at Goldstone, California and Fresnedillas, Spain. It was opened in 1967 by Prime Minister Harold Holt with the express purpose of being able to communicate with Apollo spacecraft at lunar distances. After the end of the MSFN, the station would continue at work as part of the Deep Space Network, tracking the Viking and Voyager space probes.
But budget cuts at NASA and changes in technology meant the good times couldn’t last forever. Honeysuckle Creek was closed in 1981 and Orroral Creek in 1985, at which point they were returned to the Commonwealth Department of Territories. The antenna from Honeysuckle Creek was moved to the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Centre (Now the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex) while the dish from Orroral became part of the Mount Pleasant Observatory in Tasmania.
NASA had agreed to demolish the buildings and return the sites to their natural state but the Commonwealth Government requested that the buildings remain for unspecified future use. That decision would prove to be a difficult and controversial one. What to do with not one, but two abandoned space tracking centres?
Views from the Water Tank
Honeysuckle Creek staff member Hamish Lindsay took several photographs of the building of the facility from a vantage point sitting on top of the station’s water tank. Twenty years later, an ACT Government worker would take a similar shot, documenting the end of the station’s working life.
From Honeysuckle Creek.net
View of Honeysuckle Creek from the Water tank in 1985, note the ‘headless’ antenna; (ArchivesACT, 99/11078)
Orroral Valley and Honeysuckle Creek are both contained within the Namadgi National Park, (which was declared in 1984) and as they had been purpose built, this presented a unique set of issues. There was no natural light or ventilation in many of the buildings, the only electricity was provided by a generator and the water had to be trucked in and sewerage trucked out. The Nature Conservation Act 1980 and the Namadgi Policy Plan both contain specific provisions regulating the use of the National Parks which made them incompatible with the running of private enterprise. However, none of this seemed to deter a wide range of organisations from expressing their interest in developing and using the site.
The ACT Parks and Conservation Service were quick to swoop down and suggest a Field Study Centre. They put together a detailed proposal in 1985, estimating that the cost to redevelop the site to a suitable standard would be between $1.89 and $3.05 million dollars.
In 1986, Christian youth organisation, Fusion Australia, submitted a proposal to use the Honeysuckle Creek site as a retreat and rehabilitation centre. While waiting for an answer, the group asked to use the site anyway, and for this they earned an even more emphatic ‘No!”
Note the unequivocal response in pencil. (ArchivesACT, 97/11609)
However, not every answer was so easy, and in 1988 a working party was proposed to deal with the issues.
That same year, The Office of the ACT Administration sent out questionnaires asking for expressions of interest from other Government Agencies on the future use of the sites. The NCDC suggested that the community should be consulted as the area could lend itself to rural conference or tourist centre or adventure holiday camp. They suggested that entrepreneur Dick Smith might be approached to develop an Adventure Centre there. At one point there were rumours that Honeysuckle Creek might be used as a prison.
In 1990, the Buddhist Society of the ACT also considered the site for use as a Meditation and Retreat Centre, stating they were prepared to spend around $200,000 in improvements to the main building. The lack of running water and sewerage apparently would not present any problems for them, however, they required the ACT Government to demolish all the other buildings first.
While options were being discussed and working parties formed, the sites became popular among vandals and looters, as the below letter from a concerned ranger demonstrates.
At Orroral Valley, vandals even stole the “Keep Out” sign.
By 1990, the buildings at both sites were badly deteriorated. The vandals and weather had damaged the structures beyond saving. Long disuse had rendered even the rudimentary plumbing unviable. The Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Conservation, Heritage and the Environment Report no. 3 “Space Tracking Stations in Namagdi National Park”, published in October of that year recommended demolishing the lot. It also recommended rehabilitating the sites and leaving the walls of the stations at a height of 20 centimetres for ‘historical purposes’.
The Committee further recommended “That the Commonwealth Government be asked to fund the cost of the demolition of the buildings at the Orroral Valley and Honeysuckle Creek Space Tracking Stations” as it was their opinion that the Commonwealth Government should not have refused NASA’s offer to demolish the buildings in the first place and then neglected to preserve them. In the end, the Commonwealth funded about a third of the cost of the demolition.
There would be no adventure park or religious retreat. But perhaps there could be more?
In 1994, over a decade after the original tracking station was shut down, a University of Canberra student put forward an Interpretation proposal for Honeysuckle Creek which included signed walking trails, hanging solar system and an interactive moonscape. Visitors would enter through a Moonitarium – “A hollow moonlike sphere into which visitors can walk. Information and portholes along the lower edge look onto a diorama / hologram of the moon landing site.”
Diorama and plan of the proposal including a life-size replica dish and the Moonitarium. (ArchivesACT, 99/11078)
Today both sites now function as family campgrounds. Canberrans can pitch a tent where once they were taken to the moon, and leave their own footprints amongst the trees. At Honeysuckle Creek, concrete foundations are all that remain of the original structures. Plaques commemorate the importance of the site, but there is no Moonitarium…
Drawing of a signpost at Honeysuckle Creek. (ArchivesACT, 99/11078)
Ready to start your own research?
Contact us through our Request a Record service and we will be happy to help.
97/11609 – ACT Parks and Conservation service, Namadgi National Park, Orroral Tracking Station
99/11078 – Environment ACT, Parks and Conservation Service, Namadgi National Park, Orroral Tracking Station
89/20318 – ACT Heritage Unit, Orroral Tracking Station
Standing Committee on Conservation, Heritage and Environment. Report No.3. Space tracking stations in Namadgi National Park; October 1990
Nature Conservation Act 1980 (ACT)
Namadgi Policy Plan. National Capital Development Commission. Canberra, Australia (1986).
Links to websites
Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station: https://www.honeysucklecreek.net/index.html
Trove.nla.gov.au. (2019). Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), Thursday 1 December 1966, page 23. [online] [Accessed 26 Jun. 2019].
Trove.nla.gov.au. (2019). Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), Saturday 20 June 1992, page 2. [online] [Accessed 26 Jun. 2019].
Trove.nla.gov.au. (2019). Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), Wednesday 13 September 1995, page 16. [online] [Accessed 26 Jun. 2019].
Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station - https://www.honeysucklecreek.net/index.html
Images ACT - http://www.images.act.gov.au/
ArchivesACT - 97/11609 – ACT Parks and Conservation service, Namadgi National Park, Orroral Tracking Station
ArchivesACT - 99/11078 – Environment ACT, Parks and Conservation Service, Namadgi National Park, Orroral Tracking Station
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