20 July: The 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which SA helped plan

July 19th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

Man first walked on the moon fifty years ago on 20 July 1969

The Apollo 11 astronauts (from left) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr share jokes with well-wishers on the other side of the window of their mobile quarantine facility aboard the USS Hornet.

While the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Neil Amstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s landing on the moon, few people know that the place where Eagle landed was planned from information researched by scientists working at the Hartebeesthoek deep space tracking station in South Africa.

Since the advent of the space age in 1957, South Africa has achieved a reputation for accuracy and reliability in the international space community. In 1960, the facility at Hartebeesthoek became one of NASA’s 14 satellite tracking and data acquisition network stations established around the globe. Between 1960 and 1975 the SANSA facility at Hartebeesthoek enabled many space missions.

“Hartebeesthoek was not directly involved in the Apollo 11 mission but our scientists and engineers did a great deal of research to determine where the best place on the moon would be to land”, Raoul Hodges, MD, SANSA Space Operations told EngineerIT. “We were involved in many other NASA missions, including in 1971 with Apollo 15 which was the fourth to land on the Moon. It was the first mission with a longer stay on the Moon and a greater focus on science than earlier landings. Apollo 15 saw the first use of the Lunar Roving Vehicle. It is ironic that South Africa was involved in the first manned visit to the moon and that we are currently working with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to support their Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon which is expected to be launched soon.”

With the Chandrayaan-2 mission, India will become a space super power, a position held by only three countries, the United States, the former Soviet Union and China who all have made a soft-landing on the moon’s surface. India plans to land Indian astronauts on the moon by 2022. NASA has a bold plan to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024, while China is busy building its own space station, and Russia recently announced plans to send tourists into space in the next two years.

The Apollo 11 mission was to complete a national goal set by US president John F Kennedy on 25 May 1961, to perform a crewed lunar landing and return to earth mission.

Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy on 16 July 1969 into an initial earth orbit 183 x 187 km and after additional engine burns was placed in a translunar orbit. Followed by several complex manoeuvres to place Columbia into the moon landing  orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar module, Eagle, and undocked from Columbia to commence a descent orbit insertion and a soft landing in the Sea of Tranquillity, about 6 km down range from the predicted touchdown point. The pair spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon. After Aldrin spent one hour and 33 minutes on the surface, he returned to Eagle followed 41 minutes later by Armstrong. After a 7-hour rest period which included some sleep time, the ascent engines were fired and Eagle was reunited with Columbia and began the return journey home. The three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 18 km from the recovery ship USS Hornet. Because of bad weather the splashdown point was changed some 400 km from the original planned splashdown point.

History was made. The first men on the moon and that with compute power of less than today’s smartphone! “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

South Africa’s Space Journey

Over the years, the facility at Hartebeesthoek has evolved but one can still find the 12-metre diameter parabolic antenna used to support the Apollo 11 and other moon landings. The antenna is still going strong after 56 years, and with proper care and maintenance, it will last another 56 years.

South Africa’s space journey began in in 1957, close on the heels of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, launched by the Russians. The first tracking station was installed at the South African Railways College in Esselen Park. It was named the Joburg NRL Minitrack and commissioned just in time to support the first US satellite, project Vanguard.

In 1959 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory approached the CSIR to establish a Deep Space tracking station as part of its Deep Space Instrumentation Network.  The search was on for a suitable site which would be free from radio interference.  The farm Hartebeesthoek, nestled in a valley surround by three kopies proved to be the most suitable area and acquired.

Today SANSA’s Space Operation at Hartebeesthoek is one of the world’s most important satellite tracking and command facility supporting many international space projects.  While still government owed, under the Department of Science and Technology, Hartebeesthoek is operated on a commercial basis and is totally self-funded. Raoul Hodges ascribes their success to dedication and ensuring that the facility remains at the cutting edge of technology. “We continually upgrade and have an aggressive intern programme that ensures that our scientists, engineers and technicians continually advance their skills.”

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