by Brad Nelson
Do you remember that episode of Seinfeld where George Constanza is trying for the trifecta? He’s trying to combine sex, food, and TV, his three favorite things. That’s what this movie is for me. It combines three of my favorite things: movies, the Apollo program, and quirky rural foreign-set movies.
The Dish is based somewhat loosely on a true story. It stars Sam Neill as the director of the radio telescope in Parkes, Australia. Parkes has the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere and in the entire world at the time, I believe. It was a natural to be brought into collaboration with NASA’s Apollo 11 moon shot
Initially, Parkes Observatory is to be only the secondary unit but is later upgraded to primary. It was determined by NASA somewhat at the last minute that they needed live TV pictures from the moon. The signals piped through Parkes was NASA’s best shot at getting them, at least when the moon was in the southern hemisphere of the earth.
Patrick Warburton [yeah, that’s right] is the rocket monkey [I don’t much care for that term] who is sent from America by NASA as their oversight representative to Parkes. (He’s David Puddy from Seinfeld, in case you missed those references.) The Aussie natives are on edge because they are suddenly being put onto center stage in one of mankind’s greatest ventures. The local town is also preparing for a visit by the American ambassador.
All of this pomp and circumstance is making the plain bumpkin country-boy astronomers at Parkes feel more than a bit nervous, especially with this hot-shot guy from NASA staring over their shoulders. Parkes is a truly gigantic telescope and arguably the main star of this movie. And sophisticated as it is, it’s set right in the middle of a sheep paddock (as it is to this day). The natives are having pangs of inferiority complex dealing with the hot-shots at NASA, although David Puddy is being relatively low-key and cooperative. [High-five] But the stakes are huge.
The Dish is a heartwarming and often nerve-wracking story as you watch the charming podunk Aussie natives struggling to keep up and doing things in their small-town informal Aussie style. It’s a great contrast with the “suits” from NASA. And they’re walking on air as they bask in the glory of being a part of such a momentous event. And the momentous event of Apollo 11 itself is brought to the heart and mind as few other movies have done. You see behind the scenes to the real people who were involved, and many of them quite humble indeed.
This is a great movie for those who like small and charming fare such as “Local Hero” or “Waking Ned Divine.” And it’s exciting stuff for the space enthusiast as well. I give it 3 NASA-bullshitters out of 5. Splendid. This is my favorite Sam Neill film.
Here’s a very detailed history of the Parkes Observatory’s support of Apollo 11. It’s particularly interesting to learn about the relatively low-quality TV pictures they were taking from the moon. The Parkes Observatory was able to get the best reception by far from what was being sent. But then it had to have other data stripped from it (the voice, medical, and other data that was piggy-backed with the signal) and converted to NTSC or whatever format. And that often required (via various equipment and computers) projecting the image onto a CRT and then re-shooting it. The original lunar TV camera shot at 10 FPS. And earthly TV is something like 30 or 50 fps. Here you can see the difference between the raw photo (it’s more or less raw…the other telemetry still had to be removed from the signal which degraded it some) and the scan-converted broadcast image which is really crappy.
And it turns out that most of the events portrayed in the “The Dish” were based on fact, although Sam Neill’s character is probably a composite of various senior personnel. And there actually was someone who regularly brought picnic baskets full of goodies to the observatory crew, but it wasn’t a hot young blonde. But it is absolutely true that one of the Aussie scientific people cut through the bullshit protracted negotiations with NASA and said the contract should merely say, “The Radiophysics Division agrees to support the Apollo 11 mission.” Period. And that’s what both countries signed onto. And it worked beyond their wildest imaginations. Parkes came through with very good quality pictures (considering the TV camera they were using on the moon and the lack of a larger S-band antenna, like this one that Apollo 12 deployed).
And it really is true that they had a wild-ass wind storm right at the worst possible moment. And the telescope was built where it was primarily because that area was not prone to high winds. And it was a close thing to the whole radio telescope blowing over. And the way that’s built, if that rips and falls over, it’s going to take out everyone in the control room unless they are extremely lucky.
Here’s some good all-around info on Parkes Observatory.
The Parkes webcam.
Highlights from the Apollo 11 TV broadcasts.
The Parkes homepage (complete with user guide on how to actually operate the telescope).