Roads from the past lead to the future

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Orroral Valley: From Sheep Stations To Space Research

It was another time yet it was also very much a part of the future.
As the Aboriginal word Urongal suggests, it means “tomorrow”  – that’s how it’s marked on Sir Thomas Mitchell’s 1834 map of the foothills of the Australian high country.
Yet who could have imagined that in less than 150 years from Mitchell’s exploration of the area it would become part of man’s journey to the Moon.
The Orraral Valley Space Tracking Station was one of three developed in the pristine areas outside of Australia’s capital Canberra in the late 1960s
They were established in the sheltered valleys of the Australian Capital Territory as part of NASA’s world-wide tracking and data network.
There was the Tidbinbilla deep space communication complex, to cover deep space such as Mars and beyond.
Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station was to cover manned missions such as the Gemini and Apollo moon landings.
And the role of Orroral Valley, now part of Namadgi National Park, was orbiting satellite support, although it also supported the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.
In 1834 Mitchell found the region to have a rich history of Aboriginal occupation extending from 25,000 years ago.
Orroral was referred to as STADAN: the Space Tracking and Data Acquisition Network, and it was closed in 1985.
Yet here was the chance to go and see this little-known site that played such a valuable role in space research.

 

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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.

Apprehensive, about this journey back to the future. Confront the life lived so far. Consider the what-if moments.
So much has changed in those years – in the world as well as personal lives.
It has now been 50 years since man first landed on the moon.
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Yet there’s the sight of the historic Lanyon sheep property on the right-hand side of the road they used to drive past every day.
Then the bridge across the Murrumbidgee River, and the historic settlement of Tharwa.
Transport to and from the tracking station saw a driver and three passengers allocated to each car.
Occasionally they couldn’t get to work because of snow or water over the road, my colleague says as we negotiate the final few kilometres.
“The conditions were regarded as harsh but we were paid well.
“There was a staff canteen where we got a warm, cooked lunch.”

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The roads are in much better condition now. And the ranges rise up majestically on either side of the valley.
The air is clear on this spring morning … and crisp. As you would expect this high country to be.
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The original Orroral Valley homestead is a reminder of the days of early settlement with a pasturage licence dating back to 1837.

And then we arrive at the space tracking site. Such a jump in time in a few short kilometres.
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Unlike the stereotypical image of giant telescopes strategically sited on mountain ridges above the surrounding landscapes, these space tracking stations were in valleys.
It may have had something to do with the concave effect … of why we cup our hand behind our ear to listen better.
Yet it was also because of the remoteness. The lack of interference from surrounding communities, especially artificial light and electronic interference.
Built down in the valley, it was an optimal location for radio waves. Dark, no light way out there.

“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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