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Remembering Australia's Massive Role On The 50th Anniversary Of The Moon Landing

Where were you when Neil Armstrong took one small step, one giant leap?

John Sarkissian, like millions of other Australian children, was at school.

"I was just six years old in first class and I remember very clearly sitting cross-legged on a cold wooden floor in my school's assembly hall with a little black and white TV mounted at the front," he said.

"And we sat there very patiently waiting for something to happen and then suddenly around lunch time, all the action occurred."

On Australia's east coast, it was 12:56pm on July 21, 1969 when Armstrong climbed down off the Apollo 11 lunar module.

A television screen grab from a CBS News Special Report: shows the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon, July 1969. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Buzz Aldrin joined him on the Moon's surface 19 minutes later, as Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit on-board the command module Columbia.

"The lead up to it I remember very well because we were doing projects on it in school, I remember clearly the pictures of the astronauts on our school walls. At the time it was in all the news, everyone was aware of it," Sarkissian recalled.

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 mission left footprints on the Moon and a mark on the world.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 mission. Image: NASA

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More than 600 million people -- about one fifth of the Earth's population at the time -- tuned in to watch the spectacle live.

Sarkissian was impacted more than most, and spent the coming years working towards his current role as an operations scientist at the CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory.

David Cooke was inside the Parkes telescope -- Australia's famous 'Dish' located in central western NSW -- as its team worked with NASA to receive and send out images of the landing across the world.

The Parkes Radio Telescope. Image: CSIRO

It was one of the great demonstrations of our country's expertise in space communication, and fifty years on Australians talk fondly of the time three Americans went to the Moon but we broadcast it.

"The fact that those television pictures were received in Australia and relayed to the world wide audience is something that all Australians should rightly take pride in," Sarkissian said.

For Cooke and his colleagues, it was just another day at work.

"When we saw him step down on the Moon there must have been a big cheer go up all around," the former radio receiver told 10 daily, now aged 87 and still living in Parkes.

"But we were mainly concerned with doing our job well and making sure we didn't make a mistake and bring it all undone."

CSIRO staff watch the moon landing from within the Parkes radio telescope. Image: CSIRO

Parkes was just one of three ground stations tasked with receiving and relaying the lunar images.

Though not as well known, Honeysuckle Creek Station just outside Canberra  was responsible for broadcasting the first eight minutes of man's arrival on the Moon, capturing Armstrong's first steps and iconic turn of phrase.

Once NASA switched to the vision coming in from Parkes, the agency stayed with it for the remaining two-and-a-half hours of the broadcast.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

A storm was sending wind gusts of up to 110 kilometres an hour into the regional town, covering the sky in a thick blanket of dark cloud and shaking the control room underneath the 64 metre-wide dish.

"When we were preparing to pick up signals from the spacecraft, we had to tip the telescope over as far as we could towards our horizon," Cooke said.

"And wait for the spacecraft to rise far enough above the horizon so we could pick up the signal. Just as the time arrived when we wanted a signal the wind really increased."

Rain-soaked New Yorkers watch TV and cheer as they see Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's first step on the lunar surface. Image: Getty

Despite a safety rating of only 40 kilometers per hour, the telescope's then-director John Bolton made the decision to charge ahead and provide NASA with the highest quality images available.

"At this speed if we were doing normal astronomy, we would have had to move the telescope because it would be very dangerous for the telescope itself, but the director at the time indicated that we should keep pointing it in the same direction despite the wind and wait for the signal," Cooke said.

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The decision put Parkes in the history books, and once the job had been done and the world turned off their TVs, Cooke took a moment for himself outside the control room.

“I went down outside and took a photograph of the dish and the storm disappearing into the distance,” Cooke said.

"I looked up and thought 'well, that's quite amazing really, we've got three men up there, two are standing on the moon, and we helped put them there'. So I was quite pleased about that."

The photo David Cooke snapped after wrapping up operations at Parkes. Image: provided

NASA would go on to successfully send nine more astronauts to the Moon before wrapping up the Apollo missions in 1972.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the agency's first visit, there is talk of going back again.

NASA's plan to return is called Artemis -- named for the Greek goddess of the hunt and the Moon --  and aims to send humans back to the lunar surface by 2024.

Should it happen, Artemis would be another giant leap for a whole new audience.

"As a boy, I watched man walk on the moon for the first time and I'd love to be able to see that happen again," Sarkissian said.

"Apollo inspired an entire generation of people to take up science as a career, myself included, and no doubt a return to the Moon will do the same again."

Contact the author: vquested@networkten.com.au