The Project OGO support from Darwin, Northern Territory

The Story

Recollections of ADAR* by Geoff Hammond, August 2019.



Geoff Hammond supporting the OGO at Darwin.

Photo: Geoff Hammond.

A series of 6 Orbiting Geophysical non-manned Observatories (OGOs) were put into orbit by NASA between 1964 and 1969. They were intended to study the Earth’s atmosphere, magnetosphere, and the space between the Earth and Moon.



This 1965 NASA Facts (Vol 2, No. 13) features the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory project.

Preserved by Les Whaley, scanned by Colin Mackellar. 9.5MB PDF file.


Due to the NASA requirement to monitor the second Agena burn and the exit from the parking orbit (only visible from Darwin), transportable equipment was to be employed, with the station being relocated for each mission. The Australian segments were to be supported by AWA under a sub-contract from Carnarvon. The site was within the Larrakeyah Military Base at the entrance to Darwin harbour.



This view of the OGO Telemetry Station, on 23 June 1964, is from Department of Supply footage.


The same frame with labels added.

The water tower visible in the distance still stands (in 2019), on Doctors Gully Road, 1.7km ESE of the site of the OGO station.


Telemetry van at left, power house at centre, with the 136 / 148 MHz tracking and command antenna at right. As seen from near the 400MHz telemetry dish.

Larger, Largest.

Undated photo preserved by Hamish Lindsay. Likely taken by Gordon McDonald.
2023 scan and image repair by Colin Mackellar.


A full data processing line with uplink and downlink was packed into a semi-trailer. It was fed by two steerable Antennas. Tracking was done with phased Yagis at 136 MHz, and telemetry was recovered with a slaved dish on an adjacent pedestal at 400 MHz. Uplinks were supplied from a bespoke digital encoder at 148MHz, from a Yagi placed in the center of the Tracker.



The 136 / 148 MHz tracking and command antenna locked on the boresight tower.

Photo: Geoff Hammond.


A second van handled communications, and a dedicated Power Station was imported from Muchea and located adjacent to the vans.


A view of the 400MHz antenna, in its 1964 configuration, from Department of Supply footage.


The slaved 400 MHz telemetry dish with associated vans and power, possibly during the second Darwin mission in 1966.

Photo: Geoff Hammond.


Until then, most unmanned spacecraft telemetry was carried by frequency modulating audio-rate analog subcarriers. When monitored with a loudspeaker the effect was quite musical. OGO however carried digital telemetry, but at this time there were few easy computer options existing for data processing. Special purpose telemetry synchronisers and decoders were used. ADAR had one of the first digital displays ever made. Data was archived to half-inch magnetic tape and mailed back to Goddard Space Flight Center later. The site had voice and teletype during the launch.




Illustration: Geoff Hammond.


NASA quickly became renowned for thorough staff training, regardless of overheads. In the scale of JFK’s intentions to beat the Russians, this cost would have been minuscule. Three courses for two months, at age 21, were scheduled, travelling first class. Fairy-tale stuff for an Aussie technician.

Our arrival in the US the day following the the Kennedy assassination found the country in disarray.

We attended Digital Techniques training conducted at Wallops Airforce Base/launch site in Virginia. Bear in mind that this was a time when digital anything was absolute ‘state of the art’ and considered very very special. This was where I learned to take my coffee without cream.

Then followed a manufacturer course for PCM telemetry, and indoctrination on the Darwin equipment that was test-assembled at Goddard Space Flight Center ahead of relocation to Australia. Jack Dowling, the Australian representative in DC, entertained us for a white Christmas, and arranged for me to tour the Cape. New York and the Carolinas were also in range at the weekends.

In a 2015 e-mail, Gordon McDonald wrote:

“Geoff Hammond and I spent a few weeks in November and December 1963 at Wallops Island, Virginia, on the Delmava Peninsula. It was a NASA training school and launch site for Weather satellites. We later went to the Goddard Space Center at Greenbelt, Maryland after having Christmas dinner at the home in Chevy Chase of the ex-patriot Australian ex Woomera (Jack Dowling) who later became the Station Director at [MILA].”

A Fiji holdup caused by a cyclone on the return journey, could not dampen the exhilaration of this ‘newbie’, and the trip established high personal standards that were to steer the rest of my career.


The first Darwin mission:

The crew was Gordon McDonald, Geoff Hammond, Eugene Smith, Jim Farrell, Val ?, John Staton, and Col McAtee.



Geoff Hammond and Gordon McDonald in Department of Supply film shot on 23 June 1964.

Frame grab by Colin Mackellar.


Here’s the footage from which the above frame was taken. It’s an excerpt from the 1965 Department of Supply film “Partners in Space”.

Click the image for a 10MB mp4 file.


00:03 – Darwin City
00:14 – The OGO station’s van and 400MHz dish.
00:24 – The OGO station, looking east.
00:28 – Geoff Hammond and Gordon MacDonald.
00:34 – unknown.
00:10 – Geoff Hammond in the OGO van.

From a Department of Supply film produced at the suggestion of NASA’s Edmond Buckley. Thanks to the National Archives of Australia, and to Brian Larwood who arranged the transfer. Edit and identification by Colin Mackellar.


In April 1964 Gordon McDonald (who had come to Darwin from Muchea) sent this Darwin news clipping to Carnarvon Station Director Lewis Wainwright.

E.G.O. stood for “Eccentric Geophysical Observatory”, the first satellite in the O.G.O. series.

From the Tidbinbilla archives, scan by Colin Mackellar.


OGO 1 was successfully launched from Cape Kennedy on 5 September 1964 [Darwin time] and placed into an initial orbit of 281 x 149,385 km at 31 degrees inclination.



The Principal Equipment of OGO 1.

From the NASA FACTS publication linked above.
Scan by Colin Mackellar.


An engineer from the spacecraft manufacturer (TRW) visited for the launch and insertion monitoring process. Onboard sequencers were used, with instant backup commands from Darwin available.

Half an hour after liftoff we acquired the spacecraft, locked-on and tracked. We had to decode vital telemetry channels for the scientist and send commands as he deemed necessary. Second burn for the elliptical orbit happened on a timer onboard, but if it didn’t automate, then it was vital we could send the commands needed.

Two experiment booms failed to properly deploy, with one of the booms obscuring a horizon scanner’s view of earth. As a result, the spacecraft attitude could not be earth oriented and OGO 1 remained spin stabilised at 5 rpm. Nevertheless, data from all 20 experiments on board was received, although at a “less than expected capacity” from some of them.

During September 1964, acceptable data were received over 70% of the orbital path. Spacecraft operation was restricted due to power supply limitations. OGO 1 was completely terminated on 1 November 1971, but Darwin was stood down a short time after launch.

When the Darwin contract was complete, the station equipment was required to be packed and trucked on semi-trailers to catch a ship in Brisbane. The next OGO 2 PMR launch was to be tracked by others, from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. The orbit would be Polar and insertion could not be monitored from land.

I was dispatched to ride ‘shotgun’ in case of overland transport problems with this urgently arranged move. I camped out with the Truckies and experienced some Outback Queensland. Often I had to climb on the roof and prop the power lines clear, so that this unusual caravan could negotiate these dusty ‘one horse’ towns.



Darwin to Brisbane overland to catch the boat.

Photo: Geoff Hammond.


Upon return to Darwin from Brisbane, I then drove my trusted VW Beetle overland to Carnarvon with Gene Smith. It took five days, camping out. After Katherine, the roads were all unsealed. Near Broome, ‘Highway 1’ was nothing more than wheel tracks in the sand dunes. The only problem incurred was a puncture in the middle of Port Hedland town.


OGO 2 was launched into a polar orbit from Pacific Missile Range (PMR), so orbital insertion was monitored at sea in the south Pacific, by other non AWA (US) contractors with the same equipment relocated to the deck of an aircraft carrier.


The second Darwin mission:

The crew was Geoff Hammond, Ron Sargeant, Mike Billings, Mike Marsh, Billy Bundock, Stan Keen, and Barb King.                                                                                        
The station was reactivated in early 1966 on the same site for the same purpose, but with a different crew from Carnarvon.

This was my second visit and I was appointed to manage it because of my prior training and experience.



Mike Billings, Billy Bundock and Ron Sargeant tracking.

Photo: Geoff Hammond.


OGO 3 was launched on 7 June 1966 and put into orbit of 295 x 122,219 km at 31 degrees inclination. All 21 experiments returned good data. At the time, this was the largest experimental complement ever put into orbit.  

OGO 3 maintained 3-axis stabilization for 46 days until an attitude controller failed and the spacecraft was put into a spin on 23 July 1966. It was tracked by the network until termination on 29 February 1972.

When the mission was completed successfully, I received a congratulatory message from AWA in Sydney:


Splendid results! June, 1966.

Copied in is Fred Mitchell, AWA’s CSR (Company Senior Representative) at Carnarvon.

Photo: Geoff Hammond.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was to become a high point in my career. I was in charge of a station and a team, and I pulled it off in a remote and difficult location. At the tender age of 24. Little wonder they were nervous to give me the gig.


A few interesting memories of those days that come to mind:

I remember being extremely nervous that day, knowing the whole NASA network was monitoring our progress. Darwin was the only site from where the Agena second burn and spacecraft deployment could be monitored.

The servo drive motors on the antennas were a new technique at the time using a Printed Circuit Commutators running in oilbaths. Maintenance was required to replace the oil and flush with some exotic solvent. Jim Farrell was skilled to work in this confined space within the pedestal. Tropical weather affected the antennas with water ingress issues. Versatility was vital, fighting mechanics, RF, analog and digital electronics, power and airconditioning.

Being unattached, the staff were cheap and easy to move. Darwin was a single man’s paradise in this tropical frontier land. This opportunity was to become the pinnacle of my career in this competitive scene. The tight schedule in Darwin allowed less time to get around, but I have pictures of deep sea fishing, and of our rental car stuck in a creek on the way to Douglas River for white-water rafting trips on Li-Los.

We fixed some nasty faults without much support. This van full of telemetry and command gear was the same one that had been previously deployed on the aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Opposite the side door, was sited a rack full of digital equipment which must have copped salt spray, as people entered and departed when at sea. At Darwin, we got strange faults that were traced to corroded transistors on PCBs. So damaged were they, that when they were wiggled, they often fell from the printed board into your hand. Things could have easily been bad for us if they had failed during the mission. We sent them dust from the previous overland return trip. They sent us back salt.


* ADAR was the identification code for Darwin: A = Australia.