Interviews




Dr. Peter Pockley

Founder of the ABC Science Unit

(This is still in the editing stage.)

Dr Peter Pockley

 

Pioneering Science Journalist and Broadcaster, Dr. Peter Pockley, died in Sydney on 11th August 2013.

During the 1960s and 1970s in particular, his voice was instantly recognisable as the voice of ABC Science, and he did much to raise the awareness of Australia’s role in many areas of scientific endeavour.

On 8th April 2010, Peter spoke with Colin Mackellar about the Space and Apollo aspects of his career.

The audio / video files of the interview will appear here.

In the meantime, see the notes below, and
listen to a 14 minute excerpt from the interview
as Peter apeaks about
“The Astronomers at Siding Spring”, “The Astronomers at Parkes” (1966), as well as the background to “Our World” (1967).


Notes.

Peter was the founder of, and the driving force behind, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Science Unit. He was the leading figure in Science broadcasting in Australia for decades.

In 1964, after teaching Science in the United Kingdom, Peter had returned to Australia to take up the first Science-related position at the ABC. Over the next few years, he worked hard to raise awareness of Science among the Australian public. The Science Unit was formed in 1966.

Peter had a great interest in space exploration and astronomy.

In November 1966, Peter produced two program programmes on Australian astronomy (“The Astronomers of Siding Spring” and “The Astronomers of Parkes”). Theye were ambitious affairs, with the programmes being videotaped “live” at the ABC’s studios at Gore Hill, via microwave links from Siding Spring – and the next week from Parkes – for later broadcast.

Peter was a key figure in organising the first satellite TV broadcast out of Australia (Down Under Comes Up Live) – from the brand new OTC (Aust) Earth Station at Carnarvon. That station was built, of course, to support the nearby NASA Carnarvon Tracking Station.

Peter was one of the two on-air presenters for that broadcast.

Peter Pockley

Peter Pockley (right) interviews Padre John McCahon in Carnarvon during “Down Under Comes Up Live”.



“Down Under Comes Up Live” was a mini-dress-rehearsal for the most ambitious television event of all (only, perhaps, eclipsed by the Apollo 11 Moonwalk) – Our World – the first global television broadcast, in June 1967

Peter was Executive Producer for the Australian contribution – which utilised NASA’s Cooby Creek Transportable Ground Station near Toowoomba for TV uplink and downlink.

In November 1967, he spent many days at Woomera, waiting for the successful launch of Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT. He relates standing in the gibber desert at Woomera, and describing the launch live on ABC Radio.

During the Apollo Program, Peter established the ABC’s “Apollo Studio” at the ABC’s William Street studios in Sydney to provide what was the most comprehensive (by far) radio coverage in Australia.

He was always concerned to have experts explain for listeners what was happening. As Apollo 11’s Lunar Module landed at Tranquility Base, on 21st July 1969, Bob Leslie, former Director of Tidbinbilla, was in the studio.

During the EVA, several hours later, Professor of Geology John Lovering provided expert commentary. Peter also turned to Geochemist and Planetary Scientist Stuart Ross Taylor for commentary during the mission.

As part of his commitment to have the Apollo broadcasts live, he campaigned within the ABC and PMG to have the seven second delay on the broadcast of telephone conversations removed for his live telephone links.

Hear some of the Apollo 11 broadcast.

During the Apollo 13 emergency, in April 1970, Peter had Bernard Scrivener (Department of Supply, formerly at Honeysuckle Creek and by then working at Tidbinbilla) in the studio as astronauts approached the critical re-entry phase. Hear some of the Apollo 13 broadcast.

In July 2009, Peter sent this message to the Apollo 11 40th anniversary gathering in Canberra –

I was kindly invited to be with you today but had already committed to a parallel celebratory function in Sydney with many members of ABC programming and technical staff who worked on the Apollo programs, timed to coincide with the time of the first moon walk.

A significant part of my life in broadcasting was devoted to bringing the dramas of the Apollo missions, minute-by-minute, second-by-second, to a large audiences of Australians nationwide and internationally through Radio Australia. From relatively small beginnings with Apollos 8 and 9 we extended our sources of original audio with Apollo 10 and further still with Apollo 11 when we mounted probably the most complex “live” broadcasts in ABC experience at the time. While the TV links ultimately took centre-stage, and rightly so, radio provided a flexibility, depth and extent that TV could not rival. With the experience of Apollo 11 under our belt, radio became king of media coverage of the near-disaster with Apollo 13.

For making all this possible I pay tribute to the magnificent and ever-reliable service by the technical expertise of NASA, the then PMG’s Department and other Australians who worked at the key nodes of our “live” umbilical links to Mission Control and via them to the astronauts. For example, our 24-hours-a-day access to the Voice of Apollo circuit, together with detailed flight plans in hand, enabled us to cross out of the ABC’s regular programs to our dedicated “Apollo Studio” in Sydney at a moment’s notice in order to capture and broadcast key stages of the drama and to foreshadow accurately what was coming up next. We broadcast right through the night preceding the moon landing at 6.17 am, 21 July Australian Eastern Time and were not caught short when Neil Armstrong decided to start the moon walk several hours earlier than in the flight plan.

While we had a panel of scientific experts in the studio for providing contextual commentary on every conceivable aspect of the technology and scientific and medical aspects, we also needed to bring others in by telephone links. I gather that one of our panel, the distinguished Professor of Geology John Lovering is with you today. As we say in our trade, John was “great talent”.

In those days, “talk-back” radio had barely surfaced as a popular medium but when a station wanted to interview someone “live” to air a seven-second delay had to be interspersed between the start of an interview and its broadcast to enable dropping of any profanity or perjury that might be uttered by a distant party. This would have been impossible for us when the rapid action in space had already moved on and, once TV pictures became available which had no such restriction, we had to broadcast simultaneously or not at all. Our case was accepted and there were no delays on our telephoned commentaries. I gather that our use of the telephone was a “first” in Australian radio.

In terms of broadcast durations, ABC radio outstripped TV, both ABC and commercial, by a factor of several times. I believe, too, that, being a more imaginative medium, our radio coverage engendered countless imaginary journeys through space to the moon. For making this possible, once again I pay tribute to all of you, the technical wizards, for the critical Australian contributions to the Apollo broadcasts.

Peter

More to come.
Interview recorded by Colin Mackellar, April 2010 and edited by Colin Mackellar.

With grateful thanks to Peter Pockley for his willingness to share his story.
Top photo provided by Dr. Pockley.