Seth Shostak: Reflections on "The Dish"

Mar. 29, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Is it a comedy? A historical dramatization? Or merely an inoffensive film in which the Australians once again try to reassure themselves that theyre a serious bunch of blokes?

The Dish is all of the above, although the American distributors of this small, down-under movie are billing it as comedy. Thats probably a good call.

The film recreates a situation that few will remember. In July 1969, Apollo 11 was hurling Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin towards the gray, powdered surface of the Moon. As part of this epic mission, the Parkes radio telescope normally used for studying galaxies, sizing up pulsars and more recently sniffing out possible extraterrestrial signals was enlisted by NASA to help relay television signals from the lunar party to 600 million transfixed viewers back on Earth.

Of all the antennas in the Southern Hemisphere, only the massive 210 foot (64 meter) Parkes dish, incongruously planted in sheep country about five hours west of Sydney, had the heft to handle TVs broadband requirements.

Straightforward enough. The Aussies mission is to help the world watch a giant leap for mankind. But in the film, theyre screwing up. Fending off failure is Cliff Buxton (played by Sam Neill), the local radio astronomer in charge of this small technical exercise. Hes sober, seasoned and intent on making sure his homeboy lads come through. He does this by alternately offering sage bon mots and pensively chewing his choppers down to nubs on the stem of his pipe.

But hes got to wonder. With power brownouts and gale force winds boiling out of the western deserts, the situation in the crowded Parkes control room is hardly fair dinkum. Will the Aussies muck it up, thereby confirming their worst fears: that theyre only a crowd of Outback outcasts incapable of a bit part in NASAs class act? Or will they stand proudly in the fierce spotlight of the space agencys biggest moment?

Competent, as well as droll

In reality, they hardly need worry. In 1995, I spent a few months at Parkes, when Project Phoenix the SETI Institutes major radio search for extraterrestrials used this instrument to scan star systems in the southern sky. The Australian radio astronomers are more than friendly and droll (a major component of The Dish). They are extraordinarily accomplished, and in fact pioneered much of the field.

The dish itself was built in the early 1960s when down-under wartime radio engineers, including John Bolton (Neills real-life counterpart) and Gordon Stanley were developing the techniques of radio astronomy.

The legacy of competence continues. Aussie scientist Ron Ekers, whose name youll find in the credits, not only directs the Australia Telescope National Facility, but is the incoming president of the International Astronomical Union. Hes a radio astronomers radio astronomer. He did his thesis work at Parkes.

In point of fact, the Aussies have no worries when it comes to their expertise in pulling signals from the skies. Much of the drama of the film is invented, not historical. But The Dish will make you laugh vigorously as the home team from Oz struggles to convince both themselves and the resident NASA honcho (played by laid back Patrick Warburton) that theyre good to go.

Gratifyingly, The Dish will do more. There are sequences in this film that will bolt you to your seat. As the Lunar Module drifts downward to the Moons pitted surface, we hear the voices of astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin flatly reporting position, speed and a rapidly dwindling fuel supply. The camera pushes in on the motionless faces of those who are listening, their eyes and minds focused on something far beyond the steel plate confines of the dishs doughnut-shaped control room. These authentic, matter-of-fact moments were high, goose-bump drama, as a small subset of primates swung open a door to a place they had never seen or felt.

It was heroic exploration that will, as Walter Cronkite said, be remembered as long as the human species survives. When all the music, the money and the politics of the 20th century are nothing more than incidental history, the images from our first trip to another world will still be played. The Dish points with modesty and reverence to one of our finest hours.