Project Mercury was the USA’s first manned space program with the goal of successfully having a human orbit the earth and return safely. Built specifically for the project, Project Mercury Tracking Station No 8, otherwise known as the Muchea Tracking Station, was established in 1960 and officially opened on Friday, March 24th 1961. As well as radar and acquisition aid tracking systems, telemetry reception, and air-to-ground voice communication facilities, it was also the only Mercury Command Station outside of the US.
Muchea was managed and operated by the Australian Government’s Weapons Research Establishment of the Department of Supply on behalf of NASA and the majority of employees were government or Defence Force employees. The Station was struck by tragedy on Monday 31st, 1961 when a simulation team flying a C47 Dakota crashed after clipping trees in the hills bordering Chittering and Bullsbrook, killing the 4 crew members and injuring 3 passengers. They had been calibrating the Muchea Tracking Station in preparation for Project Mercury but had been delayed due to technical difficulties at the station and left later than expected after dusk and whilst it was raining. Pilots Bill Bowden and Peter Davis were killed on impact and Bob White and John Cook died shortly after rescuers arrived. Bill Miles, Tony Leiper, and Neil McBain survived the crash.
On 20 February 1962, orbital spaceflight, Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) commenced. Astronaut John Glenn piloted his craft, Friendship 7, around the globe 3 times. The Muchea Tracking Station played an integral part in his flight and marked the first time that an Australian technician hailed a space traveller. It was during this flight that Perth earned its moniker ‘the City of Light’ as Glenn noted “a big pattern of lights,” during his first pass over of Western Australia. After Capsule Communicator, Gordon Cooper, alerted Glenn to be on the look-out for the city below and he spotted them, he went on to say, “The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?”
After 3 more missions, Project Mercury was completed and future missions, such as Gemini and Apollo were planned. Due to different launch azimuths, Muchea would have limited visibility and so it was closed in February of 1964 and a new tacking station was established at Carnarvon. It was a brief but illustrious career for the Muchea Tracking Station and all staff received letters of thanks on behalf of NASA’s Director of Tracking and Data Acquisition, E C Buckley, from Edwin P. Hartman, NASA Senior Scientific Representative in Australia, for their service. “As you know the Mercury Program has now ended and the station is soon to be closed completely. This somewhat sad event, while giving evidence to the fast pace and changing needs of the space program, dims neither our memory nor our appreciation of those human factors that made the station great.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed these little snippets from our Chittering history as much as I have enjoyed writing them. If you want to read more about Project Mercury, drop by the library and borrow Tracking Apollo to the Moon by Hamish Lindsay or go to https://honeysucklecreek.net/other_stations/muchea/index.html