The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), located on the rural outskirts of Canberra at Tidbinbilla, is one of only three NASA deep space tracking stations spread around the globe. On Sunday 18th August, as part of National Science Week they held their biennial ‘Space Open Day‘, affording a rare opportunity for visitors to tour areas of the facility that are normally off-limits to the public. My partner and I have recently joined the ranks of volunteers at CDSCC, and Space Open Day was to be our first outing in that role, along with a small team of new and long-time volunteers.
Our hour-long trek to the facility started bright and early (for a Sunday) in order to catch the volunteer briefing before the gates opened at 9am. Briefing done, it was time to head ‘front of house’ to greet the incoming visitors and attend to our rostered duties. Throughout the day, visitors were able to hop on a bus tour of the entire complex, join a guided walking tour of “the big dish” (DSS-43), and complete a self-guided walk to the dish for fantastic photo opportunities. In addition, the Visitor Centre displays, video presentations, and hands-on computer terminals were available as normal.
Special talks were conducted throughout the day, with Education & Outreach Manager Glen Nagle first talking about CDSCC’s crucial role in the recent launch and landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, ‘Curiosity’, on Mars. CSIRO held a ‘Tweetup’ for the launch of Curiosity in November 2011, and a followup public event for the audacious landing in August the following year. (While guests were enthralled watching the Curiosity mission unfold, CDSCC staff were hard at work receiving telemetry and tracking data direct from the spacecraft and relaying it to Mission Control at NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California.) Later in the day, Mike Dinn gave a talk on the Apollo missions. Mike was a technician at Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station during the Apollo era, and it was a real treat for centre visitors to be able to hear about that iconic period of spaceflight from someone who actually worked on the missions.
Bus tours of the complex ran every 20 minutes for the entire day. Despite having a fleet of three buses on rotation, there was a queue for the tours all day—attendance for the day was just under 3,000 visitors, by far the largest turnout for any event at the complex. Operational staff from the centre volunteered their time to act as tour guides, providing behind-the-scenes insights into the ongoing and historical operations of the complex. The guided walking tours of the 70m dish, DSS-43, were also incredibly popular, with people happily queueing for over half an hour to hear about the engineering, technology, and history of the large dish and the whole complex. Again, current and former CDSCC staff were on hand to provide a wealth of technical information.
Adding to the excitement for the young geeks-in-training visiting CDSCC on the day were special appearances by a number of representatives from the Galactic Empire, who assured us that they were on a “routine inspection tour” of the facility. I do believe that they consider the Communication Complex to be an Empire outpost under their control—and I wasn’t about to be the one to risk contradicting them! In all seriousness though, the members of the 501st Legion who attended were fantastic, and continued the long tradition of science fiction helping to inspire the next generation of real-world scientists and engineers.
Glen Nagle and his small team (Korinne McDonnell and Leanne George) run the CDSCC Visitor Centre—which is open 364 days of the year—as well as all of the Education and Outreach programmes on a modest budget. That they were able to promote and smoothly stage an event that proved to be wildly popular with the public is a testament to their passion and dedication to the mission of CDSCC and to science communication and outreach in general.
For myself and the other volunteers, the day was quite tiring but immensely enjoyable. How often do you get a chance to take people on tours of a deep space tracking station, and spend time chatting to members of the public about robotic and human spaceflight, physics and astrophysics, cosmology, and radio astronomy? I’m sure that there are some people for whom that sounds like a painful day, but for myself and the other volunteers it was pretty close to Nerdvana.
You can follow the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex on Twitter: @CanberraDSN
Full disclosure: I am a volunteer at the CDSCC
This article was originally published at Australian Science on 23rd August, 2013.