Down Under Comes Up Live
An ABC links truck parked near the OTC 42 foot dish at Carnarvon in for Down Under Comes Up Live in November 1966.
The NASA requirement leading to the establishment of a satellite earth station at Carnarvon led to a particularly unusual and interesting piece of telecommunications history. The name Lani Bird will have totally receded into history long ago. It was concocted by a Comsat public relations man who had achieved some fame with his naming of Early Bird, which was the very first public telecommunications satellite to be launched and put into experimental/operational service.
To digress a little, the background of Early Bird is also interesting. Having been unexpectedly upstaged by USSR with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, USA was keenly looking to regain its space supremacy, including by being the first to achieve a viable public telecommunications satellite system.
After a number of satellite experiments by USA companies, including Echo, a large reflecting sphere (which crumpled like a prune); and Relay (RCA); and the better known Telstar (AT&T); the most interesting prospect appeared to be Syncom, a geo-synchronous satellite designed and launched by Hughes Aircraft Company.
Comsat already had a head of steam going and had contracted with Hughes for a synchronous experimental/operational satellite, based on Syncom, to be launched over the Atlantic to provide USA - Europe communications. Intelsat was persuaded by Comsat to take over the responsibility for this exercise and the satellite was successfully launched on April 6th, 1965. The satellite had been identified by its contractual name HS 303 and was finally known as INTELSAT I.
It was well known that USSR was also moving towards a satellite communications system based on the Molniya satellite series, and , therefore, there was intense rivalry between USA and USSR to see who could be first in this field. With a clear victory to the new Intelsat satellite, constructed and launched by USA industry, it was ceremoniously named Early Bird by Comsat.
While Intelsat was still getting into its stride, the US national space agency NASA approached Intelsat in October 1965, to provide a satellite communication system to back up the Apollo man on the moon project. A number of links straddling the globe would be required, including one from the NASA tracking station at Carnarvon (W.A.) to USA. The target date was October, 1966.
OTC accepted the challenge to provide an earth station facility at Carnarvon, with a lead time of less than 12 months, starting from scratch! In view of the very short time available, we decided to place a follow-on order for similar equipment to that which had been already chosen by Comsat for earth stations which they were establishing in USA for the same purpose. Hence the installation of the sugar scoop (casshorn) antenna at Carnarvon.
Many OTC people who participated in getting Carnarvon going will remember all the trauma in trying to meet an almost impossible time target. However, it can be safely said that we were ready when the first of the new Intelsat II satellites was launched on 26th October,1966.
This satellite was due to be positioned over the Pacific to provide a link between Carnarvon (where there was a NASA Apollo Telemetry, tracking and command station) and USA as a critical link in the Apollo global communication network. The spacecraft was also designed and built by Hughes Aircraft, based on Syncom, but somewhat larger with increased power capacity and somewhat better performance.
Both Intelsat I and Intelsat II satellites were drum shaped and embodied an apogee kick solid fuel rocket motor which was not fired until after the satellite had been initially launched into a preliminary parking orbit and had its trajectory accurately measured. The firing of the apogee kick motor at a precise point then propelled the satellite into its final synchronous orbit position. (Provided it worked correctly).
In the case of the first Intelsat II satellite, after it had been successfully launched into its parking orbit and with its ultimate destination planned to be over exotic islands in the Pacific, Matt (Comsat) declared for the media that it would be called Lani Bird. Unfortunately, during the firing of the apogee kick rocket motor, the rocket nozzle blew off and the satellite failed to reach its destined synchronous orbit, remaining in a loop which brought it round every twelve hours or so.
Carnarvon was able to track and monitor signals from the satellite and also briefly establish communications with the Comsat station at Hawaii. The UK earth station at Goonhilly also exchanged signals with Carnarvon when the satellite came round to the right place.
At this stage, international television relay was a novelty, so the successful transmissions achieved via satellite across the Atlantic were still very much on an experimental basis. There had also been some experimental transmissions in 1964 across the Pacific between USA and Japan via the RCA Relay satellite during the Tokyo Olympic games.
With the possibility of television still in mind in 1966, when it was found that OTC Carnarvon could contact Goonhilly using the faulty Lani Bird satellite, OTC conceived the idea of trying to make history by arranging a television hookup. [We had learned that the Department of Supply and NASA were planning to use the NASA station at Cooby Creek in Queensland for an international television hookup within a few months, so this provided an incentive to get there first.]
This is a quote from an article written by Jim Robertson, who was a sectional engineer with OTC at the time –
Despite my protestations that the Carnarvon station was not equipped for television signals... Tom (Minta) and I were shot off to Carnarvon again to try and get some pictures from the BBC.
We begged, borrowed and stole various amplifiers and control and test equipment from my erstwhile friends in the ABC, put the whole lot in a temporary tin shed near the sugar scoop, the nickname used for the odd-shaped (Cassegrain) antenna. All the equipment was tied together with string and faith and we pressed a button and up came the BBCs test pattern!
Following hectic negotiations and prayers a session was arranged for the several migrant families living near Carnarvon to confront their relatives and friends face to face in Britain. Because it was unrehearsed, a very strong, natural half-hour programme eventuated totally between Carnarvon and London. At that stage, Carnarvon had no microwave link for TV to anywhere else in Australia – only to Lands End!
The ABC did however record this historic event, the first live TV programme in and out of Australia with the British or with anyone else, and it was re-broadcast later on their main network programmes....
[This needs to be qualified slightly – the television picture received at Carnarvon was of low quality because of the smaller antenna and lower satellite antenna performance (caused by the satellite antenna being skewed), but the reception at Goonhilly was quite reasonable.]
This event occurred in November, 1966 and preceded the Department of Supply / NASA international satellite hook-up event by several months.
The first regular international relay of TV programs to and from Australia began from the OTC Moree satellite earth station in 1968.
(See also Guntis Berzin’s story and also Down Under Comes Up Live – in the OTC Carnarvon section.)