On 20 July 1969, as millions watched Apollo-11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take the first steps on the moon, a team at a tracking station outside Canberra quietly worked behind the scenes to receive the historic photos and transmit them live to the world. In that team was one communication operator, Cyril Fenwick, who today is a proud Goodwin resident at The Central. Village Manager Fiona Nilsson caught up with him to relive the golden moments.
Let’s rewind back 50 years..
It began in a little town called Cooroy in the hinterland of South Queensland. I was fourteen and I had lost my father. To support my mother and siblings, I started a job in the Postmaster-General’s Department as a junior postal officer and trainee telegraphist. As part of my job, I had to learn the Morse Code, which was used in those days to send telegraphic messages. That knowledge helped me get into the navy, where I sailed the oceans for seven years. Unfortunately, while serving in Papua New Guinea I contracted an ear infection that prevented me from wearing headphones, hence I had to prematurely retire as a sailor and instead take up a computer operator’s role in the back office. It is there that I first encountered the space program, where I handled the communications for the Mercury and Gemini spaceflights, which were the forerunners to the Apollo program.
How did you become part of the Apollo project?
There was a vacancy at NASA’s Honey Suckle Creek Tracking Station in the outskirts of Canberra, and I applied and got selected. I did the communications for all the Apollo flights from 1969 right to the end of Apollo-17 in 1972. The memorable one of course is the Apollo-11, which is when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.
What was Canberra’s involvement in the moon landing project?
A lot of people don’t realise how important a role Canberra played with the tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek, in conjunction with support stations at Tidbinbilla and Parkes. Honeysuckle Creek was one of the three main NASA stations across the world, with the other two being in California (USA) and Madrid (Spain). They were selected because if you look at the map, they are geographically located in a triangle in such a way that any two stations can see the spacecraft at any one time as the earth rotates. It was Honeysuckle Creek that received the first signals of Armstrong stepping on the moon, which Parkes later captured with its giant radio telescope that the world saw live.
Did you ever wish you were on one of those flights?
It didn’t really enter our minds in those days. We had a job to do, which was equally exciting. We were creating history. Little did we realise how big it was going to be and the impact it would have on future generations.
What brought you to Goodwin?
After retiring, my wife and I went down to live in Ulladulla. We spent a few years there and one fine day my daughter said, ‘you’ve had enough of a good time, it’s about time you come back home’. At that time The Central was being built. I was in Canberra for a weekend and Renee had an open day on a Saturday morning. I came around to have a look at the plans, and I signed up that very afternoon. We were the first couple to move in and we really enjoyed our time here. Unfortunately, after being here for three years, my wife passed away. Now that I’m on my own, I realise how lucky I am to be surrounded by such a supportive community. I’ve made a lot of friends and know virtually everyone here. Because of my expertise, they bring their faulty electronics to me and I’m happy to repair them, free of cost. Hardly a week goes by that somebody doesn’t ask. I also build rocket models to keep myself busy. Life is good and I really enjoy it here.