The moon landing is at the heart of a new space exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum

Exactly 50 years ago, Mike Dinn became one of the first people on Earth to witness history being made as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon.

The television pictures on his screen at a communications station near Canberra, in Australia, were the first picked up on Earth. They were initially upside down and Armstrong’s now-legendary words – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – hardly registered because Mike was so preoccupied with the job in hand.

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Part of that was to flash the pictures to Nasa, in Houston, Texas, from where they went around the world to the biggest television audience in history, estimated at half a billion people, transfixed by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin exploring the lunar surface for two-and-a-half hours on July 20.

Mike Dinn pictured last year. (Photo credit: Colin Mackellar)

Mike, 86, will be in front of a screen again tonight to mark the 50th anniversary with a live link-up to the National Science and Media Museum in his native Bradford, which is celebrating his role as part of its new exhibition about space exploration, Hello Universe.

It means being up at 4am in Canberra, but Mike’s fine with that. The world is beating a path to his door for this anniversary, and as he talks via Skype his computer pings constantly with emails from space enthusiasts hungry for every detail of his part in humanity’s greatest adventure.

Mike, who grew up in Little Horton and studied electrical engineering at Bradford Technical College, emigrated to Australia in 1960, eventually becoming deputy director of the Honeysuckle Creek communications station after working in aviation.

The space exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, has just opened. (Picture by Simon Hulme).

It was part of Nasa’s worldwide network monitoring the Apollo 11 mission.

Because of the position of the Moon’s orbit – and the eagerness of Armstrong and Aldrin to get out of their capsule and explore – Honeysuckle Creek, where Mike was in charge of the day’s operations, was the only station able to receive the pictures for the first eight minutes.

“They were getting out earlier than originally planned,” says Mike. “They were supposed to have a sleep after they’d landed and then get out. But you can imagine landing on the Moon and then going to sleep? So they didn’t do that and climbed out.”

A fragment of moon rock at Bradfords National Science and Media Museum. (Simon Hulme).

When they did, broadcasting the pictures was not at the forefront of Mike’s thoughts, but the safety of Armstrong and Aldrin. Each wore a heart monitor, and the signals from them were erratic, leading him to worry for their health.

“Although television is the thing that everybody remembers, it was actually at the bottom of my priority list because it did not contribute in any way to the safety of the astronauts,” says Mike.

“We were getting an intermittent medical signal and that was my worry, not the television. It did come good, but I never did find out whether it was our problem or a problem with their backpacks.”

Mike was simply too busy to share in the awestruck emotional reaction worldwide at watching men set foot on the Moon, a quarter of a million miles distant.

An original copy of Galileo Galileis 1610 book Starry Messenger is on display at the exhibition.

“It wasn’t my job to be anything other than objective and focused on the things that mattered.

“I try to draw an analogy with a stage show. I was playing a part and had to focus and concentrate on my part, and everybody else focused on their part. Yes, the television was there, and had there been problems with the pictures, it would have been my job to work out what to do about it.”

Those pictures are central to Hello Universe, which takes an interactive journey through how information from space has been recorded over centuries, and tells the story of exploration in the five decades since Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind.

And among its exhibits is a direct link to the moments that Mike became one of the first to witness – a checklist that Aldrin and Armstrong had with them.

Exhibition curator Annie Jamieson says: “Most of what goes into space doesn’t come back, but one thing that did go to the Moon and come back is this checklist.

“This particular one is the protocol to bring the Moon lander back to the orbiter. It was in the capsule with Buzz and Neil, and it’s relatively rare to have something that’s been into space.

“There is a really nice story that goes with that, and we have a letter about it from Buzz. There was a bit of an accident when they were in their capsule getting ready to leave for their Moon walk, when one of them knocked a control panel and broke a switch.

“Houston said, ‘OK, you go do the Moon walk, leave it with us’, and the solution was to stick a pen in the hole where the switch was.”

The Moon’s lure for humanity down the ages is one of the exhibition’s themes. It includes an original copy of Galileo Galilei’s 1610 book Starry Messenger, in which the great visionary drew the lunar landscape after studying it through his telescope.

“Our interest in space starts with the Moon, our fascination with that thing floating in the sky. We get to the Moon eventually and then we go out beyond the Moon into the solar system and the deeper universe,” says Annie.

“Galileo was the first to document what he saw in any detail, and the only way was to draw it. He was the first to really recognise the patchiness you see on the Moon are mountains and craters, so it’s like the Earth in many ways.”

Hello Universe brings the story of space exploration up to date with data from Nasa’s Pioneer, Voyager and Cassini missions.

The exhibition has been more than a year in the making and for Annie, the museum’s curator of sound technologies, fits perfectly with a lifelong fascination with space.

“As a child I had several years of correspondence with Nasa, because I read an atlas of the universe when I was about seven, and I thought that I’d write to them, and they were fantastic,” she says.

“For three or four years they wrote to me regularly, they sent me newsletters and information. Even then, I was fascinated by deep space and how far out we can see and what we can find out, so it’s nice to come back to it now and explore it from a different perspective.”

And for Mike, who continued working with Nasa on later Apollo missions and then sending probes into deep space until his retirement in 1994, there is a deep sense of satisfaction in having been involved in one of the greatest achievements in history.

“There was a big chunk of luck in there,” he says. “I hadn’t gone out of my way to be involved in the space programme, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

“In retrospect, it has become the highlight of my career. I didn’t feel that way at the time, but it’s evolved to be that because it was one of the most significant events of the century.

“You can draw some parallels with climbing Everest, and the famous remark about climbing it because it was there. In some ways you can say that in regard to the landing on the Moon – because it was there.”

Hello Universe runs at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford until January 22, next year. Entry is free.