Launch of the Parkes Mars Tracks - 31 October 2003
Launch of the Parkes Mars Tracks

Prior to his arrival at the Parkes Observatory, the Ambasador was accorded a Civic Reception in Parkes. Click here to see the details.

Click on images to see the full-size versions

On Friday 31 October, the United States Ambassador, His Excellency, J. Thomas Shieffer, was the guest of honour at a ceremony to officially launch the Parkes Mars Tracks.

He was accompanied by Mr John Cobb MP, the local member of Federal Parliament, and by Dr Neal Newman, the NASA Representative in Australia. His excellency was welcomed to the Observatory by Dr John Reynolds, the Officer-in-Charge, who in turn introduced Dr Brian Boyle, the Director of the CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility.

As so often happens during crucial moments in its history, the telescope was subjected to a buffeting from mother nature. In a case of life imitating art, high winds and a light rain greeted the visiting dignitaries, but everyone present took it with good humour and an enjoyable time was had by all.

Over morning coffee, the Ambassador was introduced to the other invited guests in the Observatory's new "Dish Cafe". The current Director of Tidbinbilla, Peter Churchill, and the former Director, Mike Dinn, were present, as were Miriam Baltuck (past NASA Representative in Australia) and Jeff Osman of JPL.

The formal part of the ceremony began with Dr John Reynolds welcoming our guests to the Observatory.

Dr Warren King, Chairman of the CSIRO's IT Manufacturing and Services, representing the CSIRO Chief Executive, Dr Geoff Garret, outlined the history of Parkes' contributions to space exploration and the long collaboration between NASA and the CSIRO. He described how Parkes was involved in the Mariner 2 and 4 missions that began interplanetary explorations of Venus and Mars in the 1960's. The Apollo manned lunar landing missions were a triumph as were the Voyager 2 encounters of Uranus and Neptune in the 1980's. Finally, he described how in the year-long Galileo tracking support from 1996 to 1997, the observatory maintained a phenomenal 97.25% uptime and that no tracking time was lost due to operator error. Dr King, also described how the dish was the model and inspiration for the large antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN).

Dr Neal Newman, the NASA Representative in Australia, described NASA's vision and how similar it was to the work that the Parkes Telescope had undertaken in it's history. NASA's vision is:

  • To understand and protect our home planet
  • To explore the Universe and search for life
  • To inspire the next generation of explorers

  • The Ambassador, in his response, described the Parkes Telescope as like a trusted friend, "always there when we need a hand". He said that the relationship between the CSIRO and NASA was very much like that between the United States and Australia, as friends that share common values and dreams.

    The Ambassador described how he was first asked by President George W. Bush to be Australia's Ambassador in April 2001; "I went back to Dallas that weekend and of all things that were playing that week at the theatre was "The DISH". My wife and I went to see it and I knew this (being Ambassador to Australia) was going to be a lot of fun", he said.

    In keeping with the good humoured spirit of the day, each of the speakers described how they would like to be potrayed in the sequel to The DISH. Dr King, described how Brian Boyle's fantasy (Brian is a Scotsman) is to be portrayed by Sean Connery. The Ambassador thought that Robert Redford would be appropriate for his character, but that Redford was perhaps getting a bit too old now. Neal Newman thought that Patrick Warburton (who played Al in the film) would be fine since it would make him seem a little taller. John Reynolds didn't mind the idea of Sam Neill reprising his role to represent him.

    Next came the official launch of the tracks and the christening of the new panels. In March 2003, the surface of the dish was repanelled. The upgrade extended the perforated aluminium panels to 55 metres diameter. This increased the sensitivity of the dish by 1 dB at X-band. To commemorate the upgrade and officially launch the Mars Tracks, three spare panels were set up at the base of the tower. The dish was lowered to within 2 metres of them. At this moment, right on cue, the winds suddenly picked up, peaking at over 80 km/h. A bottle of champagne was attached to the edge of the dish by a length of rope. Accompanied by Dr John Reynolds and Mr John Cobb MP, the Ambassador pulled on the rope, which raised the bottle and to a chorus of cheers, sent it smashing into the centre panel.

    In an allusion to the film, The DISH, Dr Warren King then presented the Ambassador with a classic Australian Cricket bat. The business end of the bat (the front) was signed by all the Parkes Staff, and the back by all the ATNF staff from our Sydney headquarters. In a reciprical gesture, the Ambassador presented Dr John Reynolds with a Grand Slam Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

    Being an avid cricket fan, it didn't take John too long to figure out how to hold the bat correctly. The two then posed for the large media contingent with their treasured momentos.

    The Ambassador, along with the media, was then treated to a hayride.

    Up on the surface, a quick spot of cricket was played. With John Reynolds bowling and Neal Newman keeping wicket, the Ambassador eyed the ball and hit it for six, sending it almost into orbit. Bradman would be proud!

    Coming back down to Earth, the Ambassador was escorted through the tower to inspect the control room. Dr Stacy Mader, who had been controlling the dish during the ceremony, showed the Ambassador the Manual Control Panel and invited the Ambassador to take control and stow the dish, which he was delighted to do.

    The Ambassador was then introduced to the visiting astronomers in the new control room. Dr Richard Manchester and Dr Michael Kesteven explained their research and introduced their students, Dr Nina Wang, Aidan Hotan and Aris Karastergiou.

    The media then had opportunities to interview the Ambassador.

    Following the press interviews, our guests gathered in the dish cafe, for lunch over music and drinks.

    Following lunch, the Ambassador presented the Observatory with a framed Louisville Slugger Major League baseball kit. The ball was signed by the Ambassador, and will be put on display in the Visitors Centre to commemorate the visit. We understand that the bat is considered to be the Rolls-Royce of baseball bats.

    The inscription on the frame reads: `Presented to CSIRO and the Parkes Observatory - big hitters on the NASA team'.

    October 31, happened to also be the 42nd anniversary of the Parkes Telescope's official commissioning. Mr John Cobb MP, praised the staff of the Observatory for their efforts in maintaining the telescope at the forefront of scientific research and for preparing it for this marvelous day. He toasted the continued success of the osbervatory, something that all Parkes residents and Australians in general were immensely proud of.

    Then, lead by John Reynolds in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, the Ambassador and John Cobb cut the dish's birthday cake.

    It was a great honour and pleasure hosting His Excellency, J. Thomas Shieffer, Ambassador of the United States of America. Despite the weather, the occassion was marked by good humour and good will and will be remembered for a long time by all those present.

    In July 1965, the Parkes Observatory helped track the Mariner 4 spacecraft as it flew past Mars, returning the first-ever closeup images of the Martian surface. As we commence the Mars Tracks on Monday, 3 November, we look forward to returning to Mars with our colleagues at NASA/JPL and continuing the adventure of exploring the red planet.

    Post Script: You guessed it, just one or two hours after the Ambassador departed, the winds abated, the skies cleared and everything was back to normal.

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