It was December 21, 1968 that Apollo 8 started from Cape Kennedy, Florida, sending US astronauts Frank Bormann, James Lowell Jr. and William Anders for the first human mission on the moon in the world.
A few days later – on Christmas Eve in Houston, Christmas in Canberra – the three astronauts had just passed through the moon to the tranquility of the moon and were approaching the lunar sunrise when they brought the historic Christmas message to people on Earth.
Read more: curious children: why do I sometimes see the moon during the day?
A few hours later, the Australian monitoring station took over the site for receiving data and a relay location for the mission.
Located between the chewing gum and the kangaroos just before Canberra, the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station listened to the critical acquisition of the signal as the spacecraft emerged from behind the moon of its last orbit after it let its engine return to Earth.
Honeysuckle Creek received and retransmitted the first words of the astronaut Jim Lowell to the Control of the mission of returning home:
Apollo 8: mission that "saved 1968"
The mission of Apollo 8 was just the second team to travel on a type of spacecraft to transport astronauts to the first landing on the moon next year.
Initially, the mission was to test the lunar module in the orbit of the Earth. But with this, the spacecraft is still not ready, NASA has taken a bold decision to launch a command and service module around the moon itself as a precursor to the crew.
Also, prompting the decision was the belief that the Russians were close to starting their own moon.
Apollo 8 was the first piloting with a massive Saturn V rocket, the first rendezvous with the moon, and for the first time, human eyes saw the long side of the moon.
The six-day mission was a spectacular success. The three astronauts carried out ten orbits on the moon and were extensively tested for space and marine support.
NASA is now one step closer to that "giant leap for humanity".
The astronauts also took the icon of Earth's Earth image behind the lunar landscape. This was a deep picture, which made up all of humanity, and held the three astronauts.
Read more: Land, a photo that has changed the world
Although the religious nature of reading the Christmas reading of Apollo 8 caused controversy over the mission, it was heard by hundreds of millions of people.
That message was passed away from man ever was – the distance led to a delay of one second in all communications – making it even more remarkable.
One member of the public famously wrote to NASA to recognize the mission "save 1968," one year suffering from war and protests over Vietnam, civil rights and other issues.
Support Apollo down under
The Apollo program that allowed the first humans to leave Earth's orbit was mostly an American venture, but not exclusively.
In time before dedicated satellites to communicate with spacecraft, NASA relied on a chain of monitoring stations and world-wide data communications to communicate with satellites and orbiting orbiting Earth and astronauts. To ensure adequate coverage, they include stations in distant places such as Madagascar, Nigeria and Woomera in South Australia.
For missions further in the solar system, NASA used three main stations: one near Canberra in Australia, which included Honeysuckle Creek, another in Madrid in Spain, and the third in Goldstone, California.
At least one of these three stations would have an antenna that would encounter the spacecraft at any time, receiving their communications and bringing to control the mission in Houston, Texas.
This was a global network of instant data and voice communications, at a time when even an international phone call had to be booked a few weeks in advance and was very expensive.
For Apollo 8, Honeysuckle Creek received telemetry and voice communications when the spacecraft first went into orbit behind the moon when it first appeared in communication with the Earth, and when it began its fiery re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere on December 27th.
Australian technicians were responsible for the vital task of aligning the spacecraft vessels and solving problems that could arise with equipment, which is an incredible phenomenon with technology from the 1960s.
Support for other missions
While only Lowell will fly again to the Apollo 13 mission, all equipment and procedures tested on the Apollo 8 – spacecraft, NASA technicians and the global network of monitoring stations – will support the remaining flights to Apollo.
Honeysuckle Creek was closed and dismantled in 1981, but its receiving meals moved not far from Tidbinbilla.
Read more: Australia is participating in a 50-year space exploration with NASA
Australia continues to play an important role in space exploration with scientists and technicians who are still supporting NASA.
They are included as part of the Deep Space Network, following spacecraft, such as Pluto's New Horizon mission and more missions on Mars.
As for the two Voyager spacecraft that traveled far the most from any object made by humans, they now only have a contact with the Earth through Australia.
Even at Christmas, Tidinbilla will receive messages from the spacecraft around the Solar System.
So when you send a Christmas message this year, spare thought for those messages from the moon 50 years ago, and the role of Australian scientists plays in their receiving.
Tristan Moss received a humanitarian travel scholarship to support this research. He received his PhD in 2015 at the Australian National University and published his first book, Guardians at the Periphery: the Australian Army in Papua New Guinea, 1951-75 in 2017 with Cambridge University. He previously worked on Australian military history's official histories of the Australian military memo.