Drama of the highest order: Tracking the Moon landing at Jodrell Bank

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, we’ve been looking back at what was happening at Jodrell Bank on 20th and 21st of July 1969.

Jodrell Bank was deeply involved in monitoring the early space race. The instruments here were the best in the world for picking up signals from spacecraft and Jodrell was formally involved in tracking, and independently verifying both US and Soviet missions.  Today, Professor Tim O’Brien has been explaining the story on the Lovell Stage at our annual festival of discovery, bluedot. You can also watch Tim talk in more detail about this at his recent Lovell Lecture here.

By 1969 the US space programme had built their own network of tracking instruments around the world, so Jodrell was not formally involved in tracking the Apollo 11 mission. But, because they could, Lovell and his team listened in to the mission using Jodrell’s 50ft telescope.

This is the trace from the chart recorder as the telescope tracked the Eagle lander on its descent to the surface of the Moon. The smooth peaks are the computer-controlled descent, the bumpy section towards the end is the point at which Armstrong took manual control, when they realised the planned landing site was in fact a boulder field and they needed to come down elsewhere.

Copyright University of Manchester

Simultaneously, and in a more formal capacity, the team at Jodrell were using the Lovell telescope to track the Soviet’s Luna 15 mission. This unmanned mission, little known by the public at the time, aimed to collect lunar soil samples. The timing was no coincidence: the Soviet’s, although unable to send astronauts to the Moon, hoped to beat the Americans by being the first to return lunar rock samples to Earth.

Our archive contains an astonishing audio recording made in the Control Room here at Jodrell on the 21st July, as the team tracked Luna 15 orbiting and, ultimately, crash-landing on the Moon whilst the Apollo astronauts were still on the Moon’s surface. In the audio we can hear the voices of the Apollo astronauts, the voices of the Jodrell team in the Control Room, the various bleeps and static of the Luna 15 telemetry and the calm narration of Bernard Lovell.

We released this audio in 2009, you can listen to it here

The scientists can be heard identifying Luna 15’s change in orbit, with Lovell stating that according to ‘a well-informed source in Moscow’ the Soviet’s planned to land earlier than scheduled and nearer to the Apollo landing site. In the final moments before the probe is lost voices in the Control Room can be heard saying ‘it’s landing’ and ‘it’s going down much too fast!’

This time in history is known as the space race, and for the team at Jodrell Bank the 20th and 21st of July 1969 truly lived up to this name. As Lovell can be heard saying at the end of the recording ‘I say, this has really been drama of the highest order’.

Explore our Moon landing celebrations taking place this weekend at bluedot…