Writing about film, I sometimes say, can be a little education in just about everything. But watching movies can be a miseducation in just about everything. Even fact-based films are often, even usually, unreliable guides to their subject matter.
This week’s Spotlight piece is a review of the Australian comedy The Dish. You will be charmed to learn from this film that over 40 years ago, when the whole world watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin broadcast to Houston from the moon, signals from the Eagle were received not from Houston itself, which was facing away from the moon at the moment, but from a giant radio telescope dish in a sheep paddock in Parkes, Australia.
What you won’t learn is that the Parkes dish wasn’t the only Australian facility receiving that signal — and that the signal used to relay Armstrong’s famous first words wasn’t from the dish. It was from the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station outside Canberra, where a high-gain antenna had been built specifically for the Apollo project. A third facility, the Goldstone Observatory in the Mojave Desert in California, was also used.
With three facilities, there was enough redundancy that no one facility was as critical as The Dish suggests. In fact, for the first few minutes of the Eagle broadcast NASA focused on the Honeysuckle and Goldstone signals, looking for the best quality images. When they tried the Parkes dish signal, it was clearly the best, so the Parkes pictures were used for the rest of the broadcast.
The Dish mentions the Goldstone facility, but largely ignores the Honeysuckle Creek facility — a point that is evidently felt with some bitterness by some members of the Honeysuckle team. (The Parkes team’s version of the story is somewhat different.)
It’s easy to see why The Dish basically acts as if the Honeysuckle antenna didn’t exist, and that when the Goldstone was lost and high winds at Parkes jeopardized the dish signal (both of which actually happened), the broadcast was in jeopardy (which evidently wasn’t the case): It makes a better story.
Plus, a dish is a lot more photogenic than an antenna. You can’t play cricket on an antenna.
In any case, The Dish is a charming film, and it does get quite a bit of the history and period detail right. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
P.S. The dish is 64 meters across. That’s big, but not as big as a football field … regardless which kind of football the movie had in mind.