Glen Nagle will always remember the time he met Neil Armstrong. Backstage at an event, Glen knelt beside the iconic astronaut, and watched as Neil paged through a book Glen had brought along. It included profiles about people who had made it into space.
Neil paused to sign a relevant photograph in the book – not once, but twice. That in itself was something of a rarity. Neil had stopped giving away his signature when he realised how many people viewed it as a commodity to be sold off at the first opportunity. However, Neil must have recognised a true fan in Glen.
It helped that the book was packed with signatures of other astronauts Glen had met, including Buzz Aldrin and David Scott. It was clearly cherished by its owner and not for sale.
“The whole exchange was all of 10 minutes. I didn’t even shake hands with him or anything. But I did touch his left foot. That was my nerdiness on display,” Glen says.
“It was for seven-year-old me who watched in awe as he walked across the Moon. That moment set me on the course of my journey in life and all the things I’ve done to get to this point.”
Australia’s key role in space exploration
Glen remembers 21 July 1969 like it was yesterday. He was among an estimated 600 million people around the world, sitting transfixed by their black and white television sets. They were all tuned into a historic moment, 'one giant leap for mankind' playing out on the Moon. And Australia had a role to play too.
The folks at NASA's Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station and our Parkes radio telescope, Murriyang were hard at work. They were responsible for receiving that ‘one small step’ and helping to share it around the world.
The antenna at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station was later relocated to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which we manage for NASA. In a beautiful twist of fate, it’s now where Glen goes to work every day.
As our Visitor Centre Manager (among many other things), Glen is responsible for sharing his passion for science and astronomy with thousands of visitors every year.
At CDSCC is also where Glen occasionally experiences the so-called 'seven minutes of terror'.
That's the time it takes a spacecraft to enter the atmosphere of Mars, and land on its surface. No one has any control. All the scientists and engineers at NASA can do is wait for the signals to come through CDSCC's control room.
As with the Moon landing, the CDSCC plays a pivotal role in communicating with spacecraft on behalf of countries all over the world. And whether it’s a Mars rover stuck in a sand trap, a Voyager lost in the darkness, a spacecraft colliding with an asteroid or casually dropping off a sample, we’re never quite sure how it’s going to go.
“In the end, it always comes down to the spacecraft. Even the engineers who’ve worked on it don’t know if we’re going to succeed. That’s part of the beauty of the exploration work we do,” Glen says.
Out of this world returns from space research
Glen’s work not only brings him great joy, it is also a source of inspiration. In a time when many of us are struggling with the impact of climate change, Glen knows we’re also working to address it.
“Right now, there are more spacecraft in Earth's orbit studying our planet than we’ve ever seen in the entire history of space exploration. Really, most of our space exploration is actually concentrated here, on exploring our home,” he says.
The resultant findings are helping us understand changes to the environment such as sea-level rise, deforestation, ocean salinity, global temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations. We can even map changes in the Earth’s gravity, tracking subtle variations across mountains, valleys, underground caverns, oceans and glaciers. Satellites reporting these findings back to Earth are critical to understanding things like ocean circulation and sea-level rise.
“We can really benefit from this perspective of looking at our world and understanding the changes that we are making to it,” Glen says.
Space research is responsible for many of our greatest technological advances, and we can see the tangible benefits in everything from WiFi (which we can take some credit for) to the smartphone in your hand. However, practicalities aside, Glen thinks the greatest gift of space travel might actually just be in the perspective it can offer.
Overview effect: a cosmic perspective check
“Astronauts describe something called the ‘overview effect’. It’s what you see when you look at Earth from orbit. Before you is this fragile world, with this incredibly thin blue layer which is our atmosphere,” Glen says.
He says our atmosphere is what allows us to breathe, keeps water in our oceans, and even prevents our blood from boiling as it would in the vacuum of outer space. From our exploration of Mars and Venus, we can see what could happen if we didn’t have it or it was altered. Both planets were once more hospitable to life, but Mars is now a cold, dry desert planet. And on Venus, a runaway greenhouse effect means surface temperatures are scorching.
“There are no borders up there, no politics, and you realise, all we have is the thin veil of our atmosphere protecting every living thing on this planet. If we mess it up, that’s it,” Glen says.
“We’re all here. We’ve got to share it, look after it and we can do that.”
Celebrating a stellar Australian team
Even in the face of something as overwhelming as climate change, Glen is hopeful. What we’ve already accomplished tells him that we can rise to meet this challenge.
The ozone layer is a prime example. By identifying the damage chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were doing, and then banning them, we’ve seen the ozone layer slowly begin to heal itself.
Glen’s day job has also given him a unique perspective. Sure, he’s met Neil Armstrong – but he also knows some of the hundreds of Australians (and their families) who helped get the astronauts to the Moon.
“There are two things that are most important about the CDSCC and the work that we do. It's the history we make every single day. We go places and do things that nobody's ever done before. Australians should be really super proud of the role we play,” Glen says.
“But for me, the second important thing is the people I get to work with. It makes my job easy, because I get to talk about the mighty things they do every day. And that’s something I thoroughly enjoy doing.”