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60th anniversary of NASA Tracking Station at Muchea

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Communications Technician Gerry O’Connor is seated at the console. Photo preserved by Glenis Austin, scanned by Jenni Whyatt.

2021 marks sixty years since the Muchea Tracking Station was officially opened on 24 March 1961.

The station, known as ‘Project Mercury Tracking Station No 8’, was one of two Australian stations in the Mercury network. The second station called Red Lake, No 9, was located at Woomera in South Australia. These stations were managed and operated by the Australian Government’s Weapons Research Establishment of the Department of Supply for NASA.

The Muchea station was a typical installation with individual systems for each function required to keep in contact with the spacecraft. There were radar and acquisition aid tracking systems, which included telemetry reception and air-to-ground voice communication facilities. Because of its geographical position — situated almost 180 degrees in longitude from the launch location — it was selected to have a command facility to transmit instructions to the spacecraft, as well as normal tracking, telemetry and voice capabilities. There were no computers or even electronic calculators, and most of the equipment was tried and tested units from the military forces.

Before committing the station to tracking spacecraft, a RAAF C47 Dakota aircraft was fitted with a Mercury capsule communications system and flew calibration tests around the station. Unfortunately, when returning home on the evening of 31 July 1961 the Dakota left RAAF Base Pearce and plunged into the hills of the Darling Ranges in a rain storm and caught fire, killing four of the flight crew. Three personnel in the back of the plane survived.

Muchea Communications Technician Gerry O’Connor became the first Australian to hail a space traveller on 20 February 1962 when he called John Glenn in Friendship 7 on his first pass over the West Australian coast.

Muchea was an important command station, meaning it could transmit instructions up to the spacecraft, particularly if there was an emergency and the spacecraft would have to land in the Pacific.

Muchea itself at the time only consisted of a general store run by Mrs Blanche Peters, an avid follower of space activities. Now she had a real live tracking station nearby! To look out of her window at the paddock outside, you would mainly see stacks of 200 litre fuel drums. A three-line telephone switchboard was associated with the store and Mrs Peters commented to reporters, “My switchboard is essentially only a local service. If anybody gets sick in the district and they want a doctor, I’ll have no choice but to cut them (the tracking station) off – Australians or Americans alike. I must tend to my own folk.”

The Telemetry and Control building with the Acquisition Aid (Acq Aid) antennae. The boresight tower is also visible at left. Looking southward along the axis of the station.

After a brief but distinguished career, Muchea closed in February 1964. The development of the Carnarvon Tracking Station for Gemini and Apollo meant that Muchea, after its pioneering work, was no longer needed. The staff scattered – some returning to alternate employment in Perth, others went to Carnarvon and others to Canberra.

The above is an excerpt from Muchea Tracking Station Essay by Hamish Lindsay. The full essay and an incredibly detailed history of Muchea Tracking Station and more wonderful photos can be found online at https://honeysucklecreek.net/