Deakin NASCOM Switching Centre, Canberra


 

The Deakin Switching Centre, at 107 Kent Street, in the Canberra suburb of Deakin, was a central communication point for the Australian tracking stations. Part of the worldwide NASCOM network, it was a key link in the chain that is often forgotten.

Housed on a floor of the Deakin Telephone Exchange, the centre was established in 1965 to facilitate communications between DSIF 42 (i.e DSS 42 Tidbinbilla) and the Deep Space Network headquarters at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. (Previously, communications from DSIF 41 – i.e. DSS 41 at Island Lagoon, Woomera – had been sent to JPL via a switching centre in Adelaide.)

 

Deakin Exchange

Deakin Telephone Exchange in 2009.
No longer used for NASA communications, Deakin Exchange still looks very much as it did during Apollo. Here’s the original door – and one added since NASCOM days.

Photos: Mike Dinn.

 

As the Manned Space Flight Network was developed, Deakin was the natural choice for the Australian communications hub. Kevyn Westbrook was the Officer in Charge.

(Previously, he had been at Muchea, then oversaw much of the installation of Carnarvon. Next he transferred to Weapons Research Establishment at Salisbury with some responsibility for the initial installation at Orroral Valley and Honeysuckle Creek. From there he began the installation of the new NASCOM hub at Deakin.)

Deakin’s Manager, Kevyn Westbrook, writes –

Here is my account of the NASCOM Switching Center timeline and operations

The NASA Com Center was established in the undeveloped ground floor of the Deakin Telephone Exchange. My first thought when I looked through the door into what was to be the location of the Univac 418 Computers was, “This is a hell of a place to put a computer”, as I was looking at just a pile of dirt – the remains of the hillside where the exchange was built.

A little later in 1965 I had a second look and was pleased to see that the dirt had gone and in its place was a gleaming set of rooms nearly ready for the installation of the two 418 computers and associated peripherals, the TTY equipment and the Voice Data switching system.

Installation commenced later in 1965, together with the recruitment and training of the first of the 28 staff who were to provide 24/7 coverage.

 

Deakin switch

Kevyn Westbrook looking at the Deakin Switch floorplan, 1965.

Photo: Kevyn Westbrook, via John Westbrook. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Deakin switch

Kevyn Westbrook looking at the first box of Voice Switcher equipment, Deakin Switch, 1965.

Photo: Kevyn Westbrook, via John Westbrook. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Deakin switch

Deakin Voice Switcher Equip Unpacked, 1965.

Photo: Kevyn Westbrook, via John Westbrook. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Deakin switch

Early 1966.

Photo: Joe Gormly.

 

Although I can’t remember the exact date that the Center commenced operation I do know it was around the latter part of 1965. At no time was the Nascom Traffic from any of the stations under the control of the Central Exchange (At Civic not Kingston) as there was neither the equipment or the expertise available. Central or OTC was the first point of entry as far as fault reporting and circuit restoral was concerned.

 

Deakin switch

Kevyn Westbrook sits at left in this December 1966 photo from the Tidbinbilla archives.



My appointment as Switching Center manager was confirmed, and I moved my family to CBA in 1966, and remained as the OIC through to the first launch – and return – of the Space Shuttle. This ended a 21 year involvement with NASA that began with the Mercury project at Muchea in 1960.

Communications from the Center in the first few years covered a number of tracking stations. Australia – Carnarvon, Cooby Creek (Queensland), Woomera, Orroral Valley, Honeysuckle and Tidbinbilla. In addition we had circuits to Johannesburg, and during mission periods to the Indian Ocean Ship (IOS), and to the various ARIA aircraft. These were communicated to via the OTC HF radio stations at Sydney, and Perth.

The links to the NASCOM at the Goddard Space flight Center in the USA varied as to the demand as these were very costly to operate and also that circuit capacity was very limited out of Australia before the advent of the Comsat, and from memory ranged from 5 to 8. These circuits, as well as those to the tracking stations external to CBA, were routed separately via microwave or coax cable to provide as much diversity as possible. The local stations were all routed via diversified cables.

 

Deakin switch

The Deakin Switch was run by Kevyn Westbrook seen standing on the right. Kevyn had begun his space tracking career as the Communications Supervisor at Muchea.

Large, Larger.

Photo: Hamish Lindsay. Negative scan: Colin Mackellar.


Deakin switch

Detail from the above photo.

Photo: Hamish Lindsay. Negative scan: Colin Mackellar.


Deakin switch

Here’s a colour transparency by Hamish Lindsay of the same scene, with a different team member (I believe, Don Macfarlane) at the desk.

Slide scan: Colin Mackellar. Large, Larger (3.4MB).


Deakin switch

Here’s a black and white photo of the above scene..

Photo and scan: Hamish Lindsay.



The responsibility of the Center was to maximise the use of the available circuits to the States, as the Tracking Strations were supporting different missions (often simultaneously) eg Orroral Satellite Tracking and Data Network (Earth Orbital), Cooby Creek ATS (Advanced Technology Satellite), Tidbinbilla and Woomera the Deep Space Network (DSN) and of course the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN).

The quality and availability of all circuits – Teletype, Voice and Data was also critical, and in the days of open wire systems most of the fault location of data errors was conducted by the Center as the official statement was to the effect that as PMG was not geared for Data transmission the cause of data errors had first to be identified. An example of this was random burst errors occurring on a circuit to Carnarvon. This took a lot of effort involving the Center and PMG. Eventually, the problem was traced to the operation of a relay switching the oven heater on the crystal of the carrier system at Port Augusta – the sudden slight drop in voltage caused the frequency to vary by a small amount. PMG reported back that a new system had been flown in to Port Augusta next day to replace the existing one and all was well. This only one example of the tremendous support provided by PMG.

Deakin switch

The Deakin Switch.

Large, Larger.

Photo from the Lloyd Bott collection. Thanks to Ken Sheridan.


All equipment installed at the Center (with the exception of the Teletype ) was maintained by the Center staff.

PMG (later Telecom, later.... etc) as well as the OTC were all very conscious of the impact that the impact on a mission of loss of comms would have and were therefore most supportive. PMG appointed a NASA Liason Engineer as my point of contact should problems of a major nature occur. I found the degree of support that was provided at all levels – sometimes without question extremely gratifying and something I shall always remember.

Kevyn Westbrook

Mike Dinn writes:

“Three letter codes were used for the network stations, and other NASA elements connected to NASCOM (which I think was every facility including JPL and DSN) headquartered at Goddard, Maryland.

Add one letter in front – G for Goddard, J JPL, M Houston, H Huntsville, K Kennedy, A for Australia, L for (the original) London switching centre for Madrid and Jo’burg – and that was the teletype address.

ACRO was Carnarvon, ACSW was Canberra Switching center (Deakin). The US stations were usually G, because Goddard was responsible for them – eg GGWM, GHAW, GBDA.

Honeysuckle was initially known on the manned flight net as “Canberra” code CNB and the teletype address was ACNB but when anybody called down the line for “Canberra” our Canberra Switch [Deakin] would often respond.

So the name was changed to Honeysuckle, HSK and address AHSK.”

Over time, Deakin became the key switching centre for all telemetry and voice for the new Australian tracking stations.

Deakin closed in 1988 when CDSCC Tidbinbilla took on the role.

NASCOM for Apollo 11

An overview of NASCOM – The NASA Communications network for Apollo 11.
From a Goddard diagram, with colour added by Hamish Lindsay.

See also the NASCOM circuits in the MSFN section.


the Deakin door

The Deakin switch glass door.
This glass door formed the entrance to the Deakin Switch section of the Deakin Telephone Exchange. Now stored at CDSCC, the door is decorated with decals from the later Apollo missions, early Shuttle flights and other missions supported.

Photo: Colin Mackellar (with apologies for the blurry picture!)