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The race to space began in 1957 when the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into a low-Earth orbit. Nine years later, Toowoomba played a role in extending the boundaries of space exploration.
On 6 December 1966, NASA launched ATS-1 into geostationary orbit, 35,790km above the equator. The satellite’s orbit matched the spin of our planet and remained over a fixed point on the surface. It was tracked by three stations, including one just outside Toowoomba overlooking the Cooby Creek Reservoir.
The Cooby Creek Tracking Station was NASA’s sixth facility to be established in Australia. It played an important role in improving satellite flight control, technology in communication, meteorology and navigation.
In his address to the audience gathered for the official opening of the station, Reg Swartz, Minister for Civil Aviation, declared:
“I have no need to stress what this means to scientific knowledge in Australia, and possibly to farmers, aviators or even TV viewers. This station takes this district into the greatest adventure man [sic] has ever known.”
This model of the Cooby Creek Space Tracking Station was made by Joe Mather in 2016 for a past-workers reunion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the station. It was donated by Patrick Hetherman on behalf of the Cooby Space Tracker Association.
The model is an accurate representation of the layout of the station. The main structure of the station was the 40-foot (12.2m) parabolic antenna, used to track and communicate with satellites. This was controlled from three interconnected vans on its immediate right. They contained electronic equipment capable of measuring the range, rate of movement and angular position of the satellite. The fourth van contained the equipment for satellite flight control.
The trailers immediately in front of these were the communications centre, test equipment workshop trailer, two storage trailers and two power generation trailers. The shelter to the right of these vans contained a 60-cycle diesel generator for emergency use. Fuel was supplied from the large tanks to the right of the vans.
The vans to the left of the antenna were offices and dining facilities.
A total of 181 people, known affectionately as ‘Creekers’, worked at the station between 1966 and 1970. The station was managed for NASA by the Commonwealth Department of Supply. Maintenance and operation services were provided by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd.
The station was equipped with technology to send, receive and record voice, high-speed data, teletype and colour TV signals. Its purpose was to track Applications Technology Satellites (ATS) and take part in a series of experiments.
Of the five ATS satellites Cooby Creek supported, three failed to achieve successful orbit. The two that did, ATS-1 and ATS-3, outlasted their planned operational schedules.
Both satellites carried VHF antennas, a spin-scan camera and environmental monitoring equipment.
The combination of a geostationary orbit and the spin scan camera revolutionised weather forecasting forever. The spin scan camera could capture high-resolution images of a quarter of the Earth’s surface every 23 minutes, allowing scientists to observe weather systems as they developed. The camera on ATS-1 took the first photo of the moon and Earth together, while ATS-3 provided the first high-resolution colour image of the Earth.
Cooby Creek tracking station was instrumental in demonstrating that NASA’s work was about more than national prestige. Accurate weather forecasting, studies of water resources, forests and land use, precise positioning of air and water vessels for navigation and traffic control, television broadcasting, point-to-point communications – all these areas gained from NASA's early experiences with the ATS program.
The Cooby Creek tracking station is best known for testing the broadcast capabilities of satellites. Our ability to watch live events on screens owes much to this early work.
The culmination of this testing was Our World, a 2-hour program featuring live broadcasts from 14 countries on 25 June 1967. The program was seen live in 31 countries by more than 400 million people. This involved the use of five satellites, including ATS-1. Cooby Creek transmitted the Australian contributions and also received the broadcasts from the other countries for onward transmission to Australian TV stations.
Australian television viewers first experienced a live broadcast from overseas three weeks before Our World was aired. In the early hours of 7 June, a live cross from Montreal, Canada, presented some of the activities from Australia’s special day at Expo ’67.
Cooby Creek was also involved in the most celebrated moment in space history. The grainy footage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was watched by more than 600 million people. The signal from the moon received by the dishes at Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes went by cable to Cooby Creek where it was converted into a transmission suitable for television. It was then sent on to the United States via the ATS-3 satellite.
Local rumours claim that Cooby Creek staff had a recording of the moon landing much clearer than the one televised throughout the world. Unfortunately, the tape was allegedly confiscated and has never resurfaced.
NASA’s use of the tracking station ended with the launch of ATS-5 on 12 August 1969. Over the next few months the Departments of the Postmaster General and Civil Aviation were allowed to use the station and ATS-1 to investigate satellite communication to remote stations and for aviation purposes.
The station was dismantled and removed in June 1970. All that remains today of the Cooby Creek Tracking Station is the concrete pad for the parabolic antenna. The model remains as the only three-dimensional representation of this significant site of Queensland’s first involvement with NASA.