Future Tense

How a Small Aussie Town Helped Broadcast the Moon Landing

The comedy The Dish tells the true story of a small Down Under town’s underappreciated role in the Apollo 11 mission.

John McMartin and Sam Neill in The Dish
John McMartin and Sam Neill in The Dish. Warner Bros.

Neil Armstrong’s small step onto the moon may have been one giant leap for mankind, watched by 600 million people live across the globe, but the Apollo 11 mission itself has always seemed like a distinctly American endeavor—a win for the U.S. in the space race and a feat of American ingenuity and American heroes. (The flag doesn’t help.) But the words heard round the world, from the moon, came via an Australian sheep farm.

That’s the story told by The Dish, a 2000 Aussie comedy that recounts a somewhat fictionalized version of the rural Parkes Observatory’s role in relaying the audio and telemetry signals from the Lunar Module to a global audience. Starring Sam Neill, Tom Long, and Kevin Harrington as the observatory technicians, with Patrick Warburton as their uptight NASA overseer, the film follows the days leading up to July 20, 1969, as the extremely Australian townspeople of Parkes await the moon landing and relish their moment on (or adjacent to) the world stage.

The Dish doesn’t hold the same place in the Australian canon as its brother film The Castle (both were produced by Working Dog Productions and directed by Rob Sitch), but it was the top-grossing Australian film that year and an important, hilarious tribute to the oft-forgotten side role Parkes played in one of the most important events of the 20th century—not to mention the pressure that went along with that. As one reporter, interviewing Parkes’ three main technicians, puts it in the movie, “I mean, no offense, but when you think about it, the Americans spent 10 years, billions of dollars to watch man walk on the moon, and in the end,  it falls to you blokes. How do you feel about that?”

Though it’s far from a documentary, watching the comedy leaves you with a much better understanding of how the momentous broadcast came to be. The film makes frequent effort to explain the process, and why this small town’s massive observatory (informally known as “the Dish”) became so pivotal to the moon landing—through media reports, kids giving class presentations, and a much-mocked analogy about a basketball with two valves. The film includes beautiful shots of the real Parkes Observatory, which is still in use today—it’s even hosting an outdoor screening of the film to celebrate the anniversary. A scene in which the technicians play a round of cricket on the Dish, complaining about how the Americans aren’t treating them like professionals, was shot on the actual dish, while the reconstructed set of the 1969 control room was so close to the original that people involved in the broadcast said it was like stepping through a time warp—some of the props were original NASA equipment left behind in Australia.

Still, it’s better known for its comedy than its accuracy, with a number of embellishments and omissions. The film’s technicians are fictional characters, and the real Parkes had far more people working in it than the movie Parkes, which seems to only have three staff members (plus a doofus security guard). Real-life Parkes electrician Ben Lam, who worked at the observatory in 1969, was handed a script during production and asked to highlight any inaccuracies; “by the time I was finished, nearly all the pages were yellow,” he recently told the ABC (the Australian one). Most significantly, it underplays the role of the equally rural Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, which was responsible for broadcasting the first eight minutes and 50 seconds of the broadcast—including Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder and putting his feet on the moon—when the moon was too low for Parkes to receive its signal. Then–Prime Minister John Gorton—portrayed, like most of the film’s politicians, as a man with no idea what’s actually going on—didn’t visit Parkes, though he did make a surprise visit to Honeysuckle Creek that same day.

People often forget about Australia’s small role in the moon landing, as the movie’s opening makes clear—years after the event, an older Sam Neill stares nostalgically up at the dish, only to be told he’s come in the wrong way by a young site worker with no idea who he is, before we cut to footage of the U.S. fanfare more regularly associated with the moon landing. That Australia-U.S. contrast underlies much of the tension and comedy contained within The Dish. The observatory workers clash with the rule-following, suit-wearing NASA rep, who doesn’t seem to trust their calculations or judgment. The film accurately and hilariously plays on Australia’s inferiority complex, whether that’s the mayor and his wife stressing about a visit from the American ambassador, wondering if they should call him “your excellency,” or a Parkes technician bristling against what he perceives as American condescension:

“You treat us like a pack of galahs!”

“That’s a kind of parrot,” another Aussie interjects.

“Just because I don’t wear a tie and I don’t spend all day with my head buried in a manual doesn’t mean I’m a drongo!”

“That’s a hopeless—”

“I got the idea,” the American says.

But there’s also tension over how much the Aussies should let pushy NASA Yanks boss them around in their own workplace, and a palpable pressure not to screw up, lest the task (and honor) be taken away from them. “We’ll be the punchline to a joke,” says the mayor, as they try to conceal the fact that they’ve temporarily lost Apollo 11’s coordinates.

While the Parkes scientists are all expert technicians, the film also pushes the stereotype of Australians as unprofessional larrikins: the prime minister who is totally thrown by a call from Nixon (“What the hell was he talking about?” “There was a briefing document.” “You know I don’t read those bloody things!”) or the mayor whose young son has to explain to him that the launch is going well at the launch party. And though they feel the pressure, the Aussie scientists are much more laid-back about their work than the NASA bureaucrat, playing cricket on the Dish and “bullshitting NASA”—not to mention the American ambassador—when things go wrong. In reality, though Parkes wasn’t able to get signal for the first eight minutes of the broadcast due to the position of the moon, it was actually an American observatory—Goldstone in California—that screwed up on the day, with human error amid “all the excitement” leading to an upside-down image and causing NASA to turn to its Australian stations.

While the inferiority complex and need to impress make for great comedy, it’s not clear how real that pressure was. As real-life Parkes electrician Lam told the ABC this week, “It was just a normal day’s work as far as we were concerned. And knowing the fellow was going to the moon, oh, fair enough. You know there’s a bloody moon up there.” In many Apollo 11 movies, success or failure means life or death; in The Dish, there are no life-or-death moments, making it possible to enjoy a comedic romp about the mishaps and near-misses of the global event—one much more concerned with what’s going on in a colorful Aussie town down on the ground. After all, you know there’s a bloody moon up there.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.