The international co-operation essential to the exploration of space has frequently been overlooked, but former Bradford Technical College student, Mike Dinn, played a crucial part in momentous events in space history. Lunar landings were unimaginable when Mike was born in Little Horton, Bradford in 1933.
“I did a full-time electrical engineering London University external degree at Bradford Tech from 1951 to 1955. I thoroughly enjoyed my period there, and made some very good friends. I had a great social life! I was on the Students' Council for a couple of years as NUS secretary (which lead directly to my repeating a year!), and attended NUS meetings at Loughborough and Cardiff. At one of these there was a successful movement to cut NUS ties with the Communist/East European IUS (International Union of Students) and I was active in this.
In those days we had Wednesday afternoon off, and did lab work on Saturday mornings. At one Student meeting we were all accused of being an ‘Apathetic Shower’ so a number of us formed the ‘Apathetic Shower Society’ (One organiser Ian Cameron was president the following year). The only thing the A.S.S. did was to visit a brewery most Wednesday afternoons! I think we visited all within a 30 mile range! After a couple of visits, the main attraction was the free samples. Another ASS was Geoff Swift from Pharmacy, who also became President of the Students' Council.
I am pleased about the renovation of the hall (now renamed Henry Mitchell Hall) which we used regularly for dances. We also had dances at the Queen's Hall. The MacMillan College was formed and built while I was there. The girls originally started at Tong Hall before moving to the Trinity Road location. I had several social visits to both!
I didn't appreciate that Bradford Tech was so well known for its Pharmacy and more so Textile departments, until I arrived there. But as Peter Bell comments on the 175 Site, we all got to know many nationalities there. I learned to play three card brag in the ‘smoke room’, where the best exponent by far was Abdul Aziz from Malaya. I wonder what became of him. Yet another ‘Textile’ and student President was Len Smith. I visited him at his in the 90s in Twickenham, where he ran a school uniforms and sportswear business and he had his Bradford Tech diploma still proudly displayed.
Rag Days were a major event of the year. It was one Saturday per year collecting for charity by selling paper flags, and other events by Bradford students. It was a good excuse to dress up and have fun. I still have all my badges! I even came back from Middlesex, after graduation, for the 1956 one. None of us had much money in those days, but luckily I lived withing about a twenty minute walk from Tech. So I walked home quite a few times, after losing my bus money at three card brag (to Abdul)!"
After graduating in 1955, Mike went to EMI Electronics in Hayes for a graduate apprentice working on airborne radar, before returning to Bradford in 1959 to join the Aircraft Equipment Division of English Electric. Mike has modestly said of his Apollo work that he “was in the right place at the right time” but the move began in 1960 with a three year contract to work on aircraft electrics system design for the Royal Australian Air Force based at Laverton near Melbourne, where he stayed on in the Aircraft Research and Development Unit, as civilian engineer in charge Flight Test Instrumentation. He then became Deputy Director of space tracking stations near Canberra; at Tidbinbilla in 1966; then at Honeysuckle Creek in 1967, in charge of operations, deep space and manned flight, including being actively concerned in Apollo lunar missions 7 to 13.
“During Apollo 11 I was Deputy Station Director at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking station near Canberra, part of NASA's Manned Spaceflight Network. The station's role was to provide communications to and from the spacecraft - command, telemetry, voice, TV and tracking. There were two other similar stations in California and Spain, thus giving continuous coverage. For the near earth period of the mission there were many other smaller tracking stations, ships and aircraft.
My particular role was to run the operations in real time. This involved planning, training and co-ordinating about 30 people in a team, and responding to ‘Houston’. The job was quite demanding, requiring many instant, accurate decisions, but very satisfying. The highlight of the mission was providing television of the first step on the moon, which was sent to the world. It is still the most used video clip ever. An Australian movie The Dish purported to tell the story, but gives the impression that the large antenna at Parkes did the job, whereas in reality the moon was outside its view at the time.
Mike in Amerca in 1972The tracking stations tend not to get the acknowledgement they deserve, because when everything went well we were transparent to Houston and the astronauts. But without our contribution there would have been no data (or voice) for Houston to use. In fact, if we were not ‘green’ at launch time there would be a scrub.
In addition to Honeysuckle, there was another tracking facility at nearby Tidbinbilla. During lunar periods, one station would track the Command Module (orbiting the moon) and the other the Lunar Module (on the moon's surface).Tidbinbilla was established as a Deep Space tracking facility and is still so involved. The Honeysuckle antenna was moved to Tidbinbilla in the early 80s and is still in use today.
Apollo 13 was an especially demanding mission for me. The explosion in the Service Module occurred just as the spacecraft ‘rose’ on our horizon, so we provided critical communications over the next few hours. Procedures for this situation did not exist so we had to write the book in real time. To make life particularly difficult, the third stage of the Saturn 5 rocket was still transmitting on the same frequency as the Lunar Module ‘lifeboat’, and was following the same trajectory. Everybody had to contribute and be innovative.
But this was the era of analogue equipment where the performance of the equipment depended greatly on the skill of the operator. We were the last communication facility before re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, so were very relieved when they successfully splashed down.”
In 1972 he was sent to Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, California for a year to undertake system design and liaison for the new 64m antenna for Apollo 17 support at Tidbinbilla. Mike then worked for the Department of Defence in Canberra, facilitating Australian electronics industry participation in overseas buys. This role included Bradford AED re Nimrod electrics and EMI re Nimrod radar. In 1983 he became Deputy Director of Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC), responsible for tracking and communications with all NASA unmanned spacecraft, particularly Voyager 1 and 2, as part of the Deep Space Network. He became Director in 1989, involved with Voyager and Galileo, until his retirement in 1994, twenty five years after enabling the world to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. He was awarded NASA Public Service Medals in recognition of his contribution in 1986 and 1995.
Since his retirement, Mike has been busy helping to document Australia’s participation in Project Apollo missions. He appeared in a documentary made for BBC Worldwide One Small step - the Australian Story, and gave a speech at the 40th anniversary event held at Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla to commemorate 40 years since the first manned lunar landing, on 20th July 2009, at which messages of thanks were sent by President Obama and Neil Armstrong.