Movie "The Dish" was released in Australia in October
It is now available on VHS and DVD (in Australia)
Limited release in the USA occurred on 14 March and wider release on 27 April
UK release occurred on May 11
The movie is a comedy based on Australia's role in the Apollo 11 Mission in July 1969
During Apollo 11 I was the Deputy Station Director at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, responsible for Operations. My role was to co-ordinate the Canberra/Parkes tracking resources supporting the mission, including CSIRO's radio telescope. I therefore have first hand knowledge of the mission and Australia's part. I passed this experience on to "The Dish" producers a couple of years ago.
The movie is amusing and enjoyable, but is misleading and wrong in many historical areas. These errors denigrate the role played by many people including those at Parkes. Following are specific areas of criticism.
|But first - the authoritative book on Apollo tracking is now with us. Hamish Lindsay, one of the Honeysuckle team, has spent years putting it together. Although focussing on Apollo and manned missions, and Australia, it covers the history of all the space programs and missions in 440 pages with over 100 photoes and illustrations. Go look for it on Amazon, or Springer or your local bookstore. Click on the jacket image below for more details, and in particular read Chris Kraft's foreword - "Hamish Lindsay has done a marvellous job of telling the story of manned flight ..."|
Now back to comments on "The Dish":
1. The movie implies that Parkes was THE communication facility in Australia for Apollo 11. It certainly stated that Parkes was the only station in the Southern Hemisphere capable of receiving the TV. There are a couple of passing references to Honeysuckle Creek which are easily missed unless you are listening for them. (Click on the following button for a seven second audio clip from the movie with one of these)
The Truth is that Honeysuckle Creek was THE Apollo communication facility in Australia for the lunar phases, being part of NASA's/Goddard Spacelight Center's Manned SpaceFlight Network. The other Manned Flight Network station in Australia was at Carnarvon. This facility had critical roles in the near-earth phases as well as the Lunar Experiments package. Parkes was, and is, a radio telescope - not a tracking station. Honeysuckle was built, dedicated, staffed, trained, and operated for the Apollo program only. The station was managed by the Australian Department of Supply and contracted by 130 STC personnel. NASA/JPL's facility at nearby Tidbinbilla also had dedicated Apollo equipment and people and operated as an additional receive/transmit facility. Click here for a press release by the Minister of Supply which accurately summarises the roles of the various players as well as many other Australian organisations with important roles (eg PMG, ABC, FACTS, OTC). The Honeysuckle antenna is still in use today. It was dismantled in 1983 and reassembled at Tidbinbilla.
2. Parkes was nice to have. But Honeysuckle received and provided good quality TV pictures as instanced by the first step images. (Click here for some HSK images from the scan converter). Parkes was there to provide diverse back-up in case of communication problems. Such as the Lunar Module High Gain Antenna not working, or Honeysuckle's antenna/receiver system having problems. (The Apollo program made maximum use of "redundancy" where possible). There were no such problems. The better quality TV picture eventually used from Parkes was a bonus.
3. Parkes had no transmitter and so could not send commands or voice to the spacecraft. So "Parkes go for Command" as used in the movie is completely wrong and misleading.
4. All Apollo communications - voice and data and command and TV - were processed within and via Honeysuckle, before or after going through one of the three antennae - Honeysuckle, Tidbinbilla, or Parkes. The only exception was Parkes TV. This was processed and selected in Sydney. Therefore all co-ordination between Houston and Australia was via Honeysuckle Creek (e.g. the Honeysuclke Audio above), except for Parkes TV.
Therefore Parkes did NOT speak directly to Houston. Such depictions in the movie are incorrect.
5. Parkes is shown as a vital part of communications during earth orbit and translunar coast. It could not track earth orbit and lunar coast tracking was for test and training only. It had no mission role.
6. The movie studiously avoids stating that the first TV to Australia and the world came from Honeysuckle Creek. It (seems) to say that the first TV, while Parkes was in limits on offset feed, was taken from Goldstone. It is true that Goldstone was tried but Honeysuckle was preferred. Click here for the Honeysuckle log showing the times, and also click here for the transcript of conversations between Honeysuckle and Houston around this time. I also wrote to Ron Ekers, John Bolton (Parkes founding Director, and "Dishmaster" for Apollo 11) and Dave Cooke (acting Parkes Director) in 1991 with this same information - click here for my letter - and received Ron and John's acknowledgements that my information was correct. The TV images used in the movie as if originating at Parkes were probably those from Honeysuckle.
By the way, there is no mention at all of Madrid as being a third equal partner in the MSFN.
7. One of the poorest "reconstructions of history" was quoting Cliff Charlesworth's message at the end of the mission mentioning Parkes only. Cliff was Apollo 11 Flight Director. The actual message received was sent to Honeysuckle for "Parkes (via HSK)" and congratulated "Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla and the CSIRO Personnel at the Parkes 210'". I recognise that a separate message to Parkes may exist but I've not seen it. But CSIRO Parkes and Working Dog are aware of the composite one as I read it out at the Apollo 11 30th anniversary at Parkes. It would have cost the movie nothing to use the full message. Click here for the complete original message
8. The LM liftoff TV shown was not from Apollo 11 but 15 or later
9. The portrayal of the loss of the spacecraft communications link was childish. It might have been good for comedy but bore no resemblance to the professionlism needed and demonstrated by all parties, including Parkes, in real life.
10. Australia prided itself on not needing NASA personnel to help them do their job. There were none at Honeysuckle during Apollo 11. In fact it was acknowledged that we knew at least as much about how to manage, maintain and operate as our US colleagues. It is true that there were some US GSFC engineers at Parkes during Apollo 11 but support for subsequent missions at Parkes came from Tidbinbilla personnel. So the portrayal of the need for US expertise was misleading, and demeaning. Chris Kraft's message at the end of Manned Flight Tracking at Honeysuckle sums it up.
11. And just to round things off, here's a picture of a proper Prime Minister (Sir John Gorton) at a proper Tracking Station (Honeysuckle Creek), and a picture of the Ops/Management team - Saxon, Lee, Reid, Dinn (talking to Parkes) and Grant.
In summary - some major errors, distortions and misleadings. I obviously appreciate that accuracy bending was necessary and appropriate for dramatic and comedy reasons. And I am also aware that the movie is described as "based" on a true event. But the actual historic events should have been sacrosanct. A lot of people will end up with misapprehensions. It will perpetuate the myth, which I have been disputing for 30 plus years, that Parkes received the TV of Armstrong's first steps and transmitted them to the world. Most of the errors could have been corrected or mitigated without detracting from the movie. Working Dog were well aware of our ability and willingness to provide expertise.
Here are a few to "Dish"sites and Apollo sites.
Mike Dinn - Canberra 14 October 2000 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Revised 20May 2001
Photo: Honeysuckle Creek at Sunrise by Hamish Lindsay