Mrs O’Donahue at Hamelin Pool Saves the Day
Here is a story of the the way things were in the remote Western Australian town of Carnarvon where NASA built a station that was used for the Apollo missions. When the going got tough they of course called Mrs O’Donahue.
This story is from the website of the HoneySuckle Creek group that relayed Apollo 11 video to the world and supplied it first to Australian audiences.
On Wednesday April 8th, 1964, the first unmanned Gemini mission, GT-1, stood ready for launch. Though not yet officially opened, Carnarvon Tracking Station was supporting the mission. At this time, all of Carnarvon’s telecommunications was carried via PMG (Post Masters General Department) telephone lines.
Western Australian telecommunications historian John Moynihan writes,
Between 1948 and 1952 a telephone trunk line was erected, inland, between Mullewa and Carnarvon, via Gascoyne Junction. This was designated trunk 709. It was connected to Perth by a carrier telephone circuit ex Mullewa.
Just over a minute before the liftoff of GT-1, a lightning strike 105 km from the station cut off links between Carnarvon Tracking Station and the township with all points south. John Lambie, PMG tech supporting the station, remembers,
This ‘open wire’ trunk line carried the 12 channel voice carrier system, plus the voice frequency telegraph system. The lightning strike had vaporised 3 metres of heavy copper wire and the outage caused the town to be cut off from the outside world. This was before troposcatter systems and OTC Intelsat communication backup so the tracking station was also without SCAMA and Teletype connection to the worldwide NASCOM network, and Goddard Space Flight Centre, Maryland, USA.
Quick thinking by staff in the Perth main trunk room terminated the NASCOM telegraph traffic channel to Carnarvon, and in collaboration with the technician staff at Mullewa looked at the options to pass information to Carnarvon.
In the late 19th century and early days of the 20th century when electric Morse communications had been established along the coast they had suffered with salt spray build-up and unreliability. When voice telephony systems were planned it was thought reliability would be improved by choosing an inland trunk route from Carnarvon, via Gascoyne Junction, and the pastoral town of Mullewa, then on down to Perth.
Primitive single wire, earth return circuits still ran down the coast from Carnarvon to Hamelin Pool and then to Shark Bay. Similar single wire circuits ran across country from Mullewa to Northampton, and from Northampton to Hamelin Pool. The lines from Mullewa to Northampton and Northampton to Hamelin had recently been made redundant and sold off for scrap. Thankfully, the contractor had not begun the job of recovering the wire and poles, and a circuit link was a possibility.
The Postmistress at Hamelin Pool, Mrs Lillian O’Donahue, was raised on the ring-down magneto line and told of the predicament. She grasped the situation and quickly dressed.
Meanwhile pages of numeric pointing data from the teletype page was relayed by PMG technical staff from the Perth Trunk room to the Mullewa telephone exchange, transcribed and repeated from Mullewa to Hamelin Pool.
Mrs O’Donahue repeated the numbers to the supervising technician, Cameron Clarke at Carnarvon Telephone exchange. Cameron repeated the strings of numbers directly to Arch Durie at CRO. Manual input into the station’s command systems then enabled the station tracking systems to begin acquiring a signal from the spacecraft on the next orbit pass.
John Moynihan has transcribed the text of this article from page 2 of The West Australian newspaper
Friday 10th April 1964.
W.A. WOMAN HELPS IN SPACE EMERGENCY
For almost four hours early yesterday, the accurate tracking of America’s unmanned Gemini space capsule as it crossed Australia depended upon a W.A. postmistress with only four months’ experience.
Mrs Lillian O’Donahue of Hamelin Pool, 170 miles [274 km] north of Geraldton, was called on to relay vital flight information from Woomera to the Carnarvon tracking station after a thunderstorm cut telephone communication between Mullewa and Carnarvon.
While she passed on thousands of coded figures to the technicians at the Carnarvon station, 130 miles [210 km] north, she had no idea that she was helping in America’s man-on-the-moon project.
The news that the two-man Gemini capsule was to be launched had not reached Hamelin Pool before the satellite went into orbit. “So that’s what it was all about – I had no idea,” she said yesterday.
“All I knew was that I was asked by the PMG to relay information because of the storm between Mullewa and Carnarvon.”
Mrs O’Donahue was first asked to help out about 10:30 pm on Wednesday.
She arranged a return single-line circuit from Mullewa through Geraldton, Northampton, Hamelin Pool and Carnarvon to the tracking station. From then until 3:45 am yesterday she passed on flight figures relayed from Woomera, and returned information gained by the Carnarvon station. In this time the capsule made three passes over Australia.
“It was a good experience for me,” Mrs O’Donahue said.
A PMG internal memo commended Mrs O’Donahue for her work. John Moynihan writes that she also received £2 19s 5d as an overtime payment. At the decimalisation of Australia’s currency two years later this payment would have been worth $5.95.
John Lambie concludes,
Mrs O’Donahue was recognised by NASA and given a special award.
Mrs O’Donahue was a great soul, her husband was a real spontaneous character. Visitors were always welcome. I made several trips to Hamelin Pool, to do installation of a two-band system, filters, and a new switch-board. They thought nothing of putting you up with board and meals.
The Tropospheric scatter system set up between Carnarvon Tracking Station and Geraldton – and later the nearby OTC satellite earth station – improved the reliability of communications with the outside world.
With thanks to John Lambie, and to John F. Moynihan, who also wrote “The Hamelin Pool Telegraph Station” – published by Telecom Australia, Corporate Affairs Directorate, Perth, in 1994. It’s an 80 page paperback, ISBN 0642203377. Thanks also to Hamish Lindsay, who recounts the events on page 94 of Tracking Apollo to the Moon.
Image enhancement: Colin Mackellar
Reprinted with permission of