The Last Track

by Hamish Lindsay


 

The Last Track

23rd November 1981: the last track of DSS44 in which Hamish Lindsay took part.

From left, Ken Staff, Power House; Tony Gerada, Shift Supervisor; Jeff Jennings, Security Guard; Brian Eagleton, RF and Receivers; Hamish Lindsay, RF and Servo.

Photo: Hamish Lindsay.

 

The first official announcement about Honeysuckle’s closure was on Tuesday 27 October 1981.

I had been on night shift when the phone rang at about 0745, shortly before we were due to go home. It was Terry Dinn, the Security Guard, to say that the Company Manager Jim Thompson was on site. Jim Thompson promptly called a meeting of everyone in the Conference Room. After Geoff Ruck and his crew arrived to start their shift at 0800, Jim opened the meeting with a letter from the Department of Science. It was brutal and to the point:

All 26 metre sites were to be closed down at Goldstone, Madrid and Canberra from 1 December 1981. The Department expect they may be able to find jobs, probably with a demotion, though there was talk that even Tidbinbilla and the whole DSN might be closed down.

Luckily the last threat did not eventuate, but the final days were quite depressing as we all contemplated our futures.

The remaining staff continued tracking Helios and Pioneer 12, with some Pulsars for the CSIRO thrown in, until Sunday 15 November when I had my last shift as a Shift Supervisor on days. This time my memories are melancholy. In the morning we tracked Helios 1 while on our commercial television we watched STS-2, the second flight of the Shuttle end, as Joe Engle and Richard Truly brought Columbia down to land. Then Chef Reno excelled himself and gave us a superb lunch to make us feel better – Minestrone soup, Roast Chicken and Veal washed down with a nice white wine, followed by apple pie and cream to finish. All for the normal price of 90 cents!

In the afternoon while tracking Pioneer 12 orbiting Venus we had the cricket on the television – the First Test with Australia playing Pakistan at the WACA in Perth, with Kim Hughes and Bruce Laird batting for us all afternoon (we won by 286 runs). But we could also hear the ominous sounds of furniture and equipment being carried out of the building to waiting trucks. Despite the gourmet lunch and homely television there was an uncomfortable feeling of foreboding and gloom.

Obviously the end was near for HSK/DSS44.

My last track at Honeysuckle Creek was on 23 November with Tony Gerada and Brian Eagleton on night shift for a Helios 1 pass. Uncharacteristically we erased the whole HA48 predicts and Track had to send the floaters again. Then it was just a quiet, nominal pass. As it was the night shift from midnight to 0800, we only had Ken Staff in the powerhouse and Jeff Jennings down in the guard hut; we were the only people on the site. It was a subdued team that said farewell to each other and drove down the mountain that morning.

 

Then came the final track – the very last track of all – on 2 December 1981.

DSS44 supported pass 1279 of Pioneer 12, orbiting the planet Venus. Pioneer 12 was the Pioneer-Venus Orbiter, a companion for the Pioneer 13 Venus Multiprobe which we had tracked into the Venusian atmosphere on 9 December 1978. Over a decade later Pioneer 12 burned up in the Venusian atmosphere on 8 October 1992 when it ran out of fuel.

Paul Mullen writes: “The track was not that remarkable as it went off smoothly. After it was over, I had the feeling that we were let down – but progress had to take place. I was on the desk at the time and I had asked Tom Reid’s permission to play the Last Post.”

After Paul broke track and punched the switch to send the antenna to the stow position for the last time ever, Station Director Tom Reid and Shift Supervisor Tony Gerada stood by the operations console while Paul played the Last Post over the network and DSS 44 Honeysuckle Creek was no more.

The data and voice links from Honeysuckle Creek operations over the Deadman’s Hill passive repeater to Tidbinbilla and the world beyond, fell silent for the first time in 14 years.


After the last track, Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, alias HSK and DSS44, designed and built specially for the Apollo Moon landings, was completely shut down. A small team remained to dismantle and remove the equipment, the cables were pulled out, and we walked out the door, leaving just an empty building.

During December the electrical power was turned off, the Caterpillar diesels put to bed and prepared for sale. The deserted buildings became dark and fell silent. The antenna servos no longer whined into the night. The clients of the best restaurant for kangaroos in the district were left to dine on the grass in peace.

 

Honeysuckle Creek simply faded away – there were no farewells, no speeches, no parties, no wakes. Nobody cared.

The last of us left who had put money into farewell presents for departing staff members for all those years gave ourselves inscribed silver mugs as a memory. The next time Honeysuckle Creek made the newspapers, only the local ones now, it was pictures and descriptions of the results of vandal attacks.

During its short but glorious life, Honeysuckle Creek had distinguished itself as a top station around the world in two completely different spheres as a Manned Space Flight Station attached to the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, and then as a Deep Space Station attached to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Vale Honeysuckle Creek.

 

The Last TWX

John Saxon wrote the last TWX – sent out to everyone on the Network.

Click on the image for a larger version – or here for a full version. Scan: John Saxon.