Orroral Valley: From Sheep Stations To Space Research
Even better, it was with a colleague who had worked there in those frontier days.
The chance for her to go back in time to Orraral must have been full of mixed emotions.
Curious, to walk again the footprints of such an important era. Personally and on a much broader scale in space research.
Nostalgic, as it was such a long time ago – 50 years. Yet it was cutting edge technology and they played a special role in what was an isolated location.
“When I was hired to work in the drawing office at Orroral, one of the unexpected benefits was a company discount.
“EMI was the employer. Diana Ross and the Supremes were among the music stars of the late 1960s. Pay inequality existed.
“I was a young woman. Being able to treat myself to a ‘single’ – a 45rpm vinyl record of their music – at a discount price is just one of the memories of working in the space tracking industry when man landed on the moon.”
That site is now within the national park. And all that remains of a workplace of many technicians is concrete pads and descriptive signs.
A historic site of Australia that most of us have no knowledge.
“What was once a daily commute was an adventure into the Brindabella Ranges.
“Diana Ross and the Supremes, I’ve since realised, were a prescriptive music recipe. Made to capture teenagers emotions. Written to sell records.
“My co-workers were there, working for little money to enjoy growing up.”
Now there is a calmness to the Orroral site. Just concrete pads where the buldings and tracing equipment stood.
Kangaroos with their joeys hop around the site, tamed within the national park picnic site.
“Being what it was, it was friendly environment … over-friendly in some of the behaviour by today’s standards but that was the era.
“Yet many friendships were made.
“One man said that his daughter and I would get on well together. We met, and became lifelong friends. She was the one who teamed up with me and ventured overseas in 1970.
“That was more unusual then than now.
“We went to the Greek islands, overland to London and worked to enable travels to Europe.
“So different to today’s economy where flying to Europe is commonplace and relatively cheap.
“I digress, yet this story started at that space tracking station in Orroral Valley.
“That’s what happens with work friendships.”
Orroral Valley was to cover near space such as weather, communication, sunspot satellites etc.
It had a 26-metre antenna and several smaller VHF and microwave frequency antennas.
Just getting the equipment to such a remote valley was a massive undertaking, one that needed the co-operation and flexible thinking that was to prove critical in space missions ahead.
The dirt access track to the grazing areas had to be upgraded for construction vehicles and the 400 tons of equipment including the dish and antenna guided across the single-lane wooden-truss bridge at Tharwa.
“We were the bread and butter station of the three,” former Orroral employee Gordon Owtrimm says on the information boards.
From 1965 to 1984 the Orroral Tracking Station operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, mainly tracking satellites already in near-Earth orbit.
It was managed by Australian Government departments in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The site was chosen because the surrounding hills gave protection against radio interference from Canberra.
It was close enough for people who worked at the station to live in town.
Yet the road was rough and there were floodways that needed to be negotiated in wet weather.
The station took part in many notable missions including the joint Apollo-Soyuz project – the first international rendezvous in space between Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts in 1975, and the first flights of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981 commanded by John W Young and Bob Crippen who later visited Orroral Valley.
A satellite is only useful if it can be tracked accurately to determine where it is and how it is performing.
Only then can the data it is collecting be transmitted, received and used on the ground.
The operations building did this. It was the nerve centre.
Information was sent and received using radio waves.
Banks of computers filling almost a quarter of the building helped to control the antennas and to send and analyse signals.
Under the floors of the operations building were compartments that housed cables – there were more than three million metres of cables at the station.
Data from the satellites was recorded on magnetic tape and air-freighted to the USA for study.
Limited data was transmitted directly to the flight control centre at Goddard Space Flight Centre by data line, voice or teletype.
Orroral Valley Tracking Station was able to switch quickly from supporting one satellite to another, often with quite different characteristics.
It would be one of the busiest tracking stations in the world, on some days involved in 40 passes that could vary from close Earth orbits to those out beyond the Moon.
It could track up to five satellites simultaneously.
Equipment was upgraded in the 1970s to give better capability and to support the space shuttle missions.
The station closed when the control and monitoring of satellites was taken over by other satellites.
In 1990, buildings were removed from the site due to deterioration.
All that remains are some exotic trees and the footprints of the buildings where people worked for 20 years.
The main telescope was moved to Tasmania in 1985 and now forms the core of the Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory run by the School of Mathematics and Physics, University of Tasmania.
WHAT’S UP SKIP?
Mention the name Orroral Valley two years ago and few would have heard of it, let alone associate its connection to space exploration.
Yet search on the internet for: Orroral Valley, Paraglider and Curious Kangaroo, and you will be among the millions of viewers of this quirky video clip on YouTube.
Earlier this year paraglider Jonathan Bishop had an unexpected clash with a kangaroo, after landing at the Orroral Valley Space Tracking Station.
Bishop had been paragliding cross-country for two hours and had to land, he explained in the video description.
“I was concentrating on the landing and didn’t notice the kangaroo until after I landed.
“As it ran towards me I thought it was being friendly so I said, ‘What’s up, Skip?’ It then attacked me twice before hopping away.
“I packed up my paraglider and had to walk several kilometres to get phone reception and call a friend to come and collect me.”