Interview with Dr Ken McCracken (KM) founding head of CSIRO Division of Mineral Physics, then head of the CSIRO Office of Space Science and Applications

by Catherine Rayner (CR)

on 3 October 2001


(This is not a verbatim transcript as many asides, comments and remarks have been left out but essentially the majority is “as spoken” – Paul Wise)



CR: What I'm interested in is things like how you became interested in remote sensing, why did you feel it was important, who, what inspired you, who drove you completely nuts (if you are prepared to say that) so the personal side of it that really doesn’t make it into the official record?


KM: We scroll back to around about 1959 when I went to the United States to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as a piece of postdoctoral cannon fodder.  I had the supremely good luck of working with one of the top men in my field, Prof. Bruno Rossi who had escaped out of Italy just ahead of the bad times of World War II.


The very first satellite had of course been launched on 4 October 1957. Satellites were still the sort of things that even scientists regarded with great suspicion because most of them blew up. The idea of spending a lot of your life on building a satellite then having it blowing up in flames didn’t seem to have many career prospects then!


Anyway I got to MIT in August 59 and sitting in the laboratory, as I was shown around, were two satellites. I looked at these things, and I had built a lot of equipment which was sent to Antarctica and taken to New Guinea and things like that so I knew instruments. I looked at these things and thought “Gee they’re not very difficult – that looks like stuff I could have done”. Anyway, I didn't work on them initially, but I did a lot of computing on the world's first numerically intensive computer - that's why I always then went into things that had a lot of computing. This is kind of a long story but an important story as to how you get to a point where you can say “Hey let's go”.


In 1962, I then decided to chance my arm and propose to NASA to build an instrument to go on a satellite that was going to Venus and another one going to Mars; called Pioneer 6 and Pioneer 7. Not remote sensing then. NASA sat on its collective dignity and looked at all the proposals. For one particular instrument it became a shootout between one Jim Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts, and this crazy young Australian McCracken. In the event the crazy young Australian won! So I ended up building my instruments for those two satellites, which were launched in 1965 and 1967.


I have to say we built those satellites in two years. Nowadays you're lucky if you do it in 20! So I was in the right place at the right time.


Subsequently I sort of got the disease and over the next three years I applied for, was accepted and financed to the tune of about $150 million (in today's dollars) to build instruments for seven satellites. They all flew and all went extremely well.


In 1966 when I took a position at the University of Adelaide I regarded myself quite correctly as knowing a lot about satellites. I had been doing something called cosmic ray research which led me into solar physics.

At Adelaide I switched to X-ray astronomy which was an entirely new field of science in the new field of astronomy invented by my boss and mentor Bruno Rossi at MIT. We flew rockets from Woomera. Then they shut Woomera down to Australian scientists and basically things looked pretty gloomy in academia especially for somebody who'd sent satellites to Mars and Venus.


I then got a phone call from the CSIRO saying “We've heard about you, would you like to set up a new laboratory to do research into exploration techniques for minerals”? The point was that with Poseidon, in the nickel bloom of the late 60s, there were some scurrilous activities whereby people were taken for fools by technology which was no good. CSIRO said we must have a role in getting that right. Interestingly, it was the father of Meredith Burgmann (who was a senior parliamentarian in the New South Wales Parliament) who said “What we need is a young space person who can bring space technology into the Australian mining industry” and I guess that was me.


I started the job 1 June 1970. First thing I was shown was a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Announcement of Opportunity to use the images taken by Landsat 1. As there were not too many people in Australia who knew about satellites I ended up convening a committee to decide what sort of proposals we would put in.


Now let's take the clock back a little bit.


Remote sensing sort of became synonymous with doing things from satellites, but remote sensing had been with us for a long time from aircraft. Australia was extremely competent and good with aerial photography and air mapping, learning marvellous things in geology, landform etc from stereo-photos (I stress stereo) which have a resolution of about a metre on the ground. So you've got these guys saying well we’ve got this satellite which will take images which are not stereo and the pixel (resolution) on the ground is 80m x 80m and this is where it literally became known as remote “non-sensing”. Unfortunately scientists are good at this!


Nevertheless, there were enough people who saw that technology advances in weird and strange ways. We got 53 proposals which we sent to NASA under their formal routine, with Norm Fisher of the Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR) the so-called “Principal Investigator”. (even though BMR and CSIRO never quite got on that well, I had no reason to buy into that argument, anyway it worked) and that is where I suppose I first got into remote sensing.


Now, I of course at the same time, had the job of setting up an entirely new division of CSIRO to do with minerals exploration. Now it doesn't take any great genius to recognise that a bloke who has mucked around with satellites for ten years and who is aware of Landsat 1 would see that there is a role for research based on Landsat as part of his new division. Thus one of the five groups in that division that I set up here in Sydney was remote sensing. Their emphasis was on satellite remote sensing but not exclusively so.


So to answer your question how did I get into remote sensing that is the story.


CR: ..and it’s a good story.


KM: As of December 1970, Mineral Physics CSIRO had a remote sensing group and Australia had put in a proposal, and I think about then it was accepted by NASA. Let's face it NASA was not about to reject it in fact they wanted it. You need to understand that NASA by themselves would never have built Landsat, that's looking at the earth. We (NASA) are in space, we want to look outwards!  So suddenly the United States Geological Survey (USGS) goes to Congress and says we want to build the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) so the “s…….fan” and out of that Landsat came.


You should realise that even then America had been flying remote sensing satellites since 1961, military ones. In 1965, from memory, the first weather satellite, which is of course a remote sensing satellite, no it might be 1964. Australia was notable in that the very first tropical Cyclone seen from orbit (by that satellite) was one which was bearing down on Brisbane and proceeded to make quite a mess up there. We got into history in a positive sort of way!


Anyway that’s how I got into it. Next question.


CR: What are two or three things that stand out as really good or really hideous events or sticky patches along the way?


KM: If you were able to play God and be able to choose the absolute ideal time to get into science you couldn't have done it much better than what happened to me. You couldn't have done much better than ending up at MIT, you could not have done any better than ending up with Bruno Rossi and then I picked up a number of good friends who have remained good friends. I work with them still in the United States, and while they don't make it easy for you it means that you have contacts, and that if you're good enough you can make it.


So one of the top things is that I was extremely fortunate in the United States in those first six years to be in the right place at the right time and to do what I did. Because the work I did on computing got me onto satellites and I would have not got on without that.  I got onto satellites and that made me part of another revolution which people tend to forget. It was the revolution of going from analogue circuitry to digital circuitry, that revolution was taking place in NASA. In fact, another Australian Brian O'Brien of Perth got into terrible trouble with NASA when he wanted to use digital telemetry and they said you can't use digital telemetry we've never done it that way. Well it's all digital now. So I was in that revolution of digitisation of measurements which if you are a measurement person the world started then. That of course then allowed satellite work and being part of the computer revolution and the digitisation revolution totally open the door for me in mineral physics. I didn’t have to be told where the new emerging advances were I just knew as I had been in it doing it for the last 10 years. I had enough perception to say “Hey I am in the middle of a revolution let’s go with it”.


Australian Geologists, Geophysics and Geophysicists almost similarly then, were in the thrall of overseas experts. They took the view that they were inferior and that took a lot of shaking. So there was a bit of a battle there.


Another high point was being at the right place at the right time. Another which has got nothing to do with this story is however being able to make measurements of cosmic radiation in interplanetary space, which totally revolutionised our understanding of the magnetic fields of the Sun. That in a sense was a credential that got me all my support. Young people need support; they often don’t tell you it is support, but it’s there!

I suppose I'm lucky I've done many technical things and I can't think of a real clunker; everyone has worked very well and difficult to say this was better than that.


One of the important things to me and I'm not going to say this piece of equipment was better than that; you have to understand the situation. I came from the United States as an academic, a real academic, I had built satellites and if that wasn't enough to suggest that you were weird nothing was. But in CSIRO I had to deal with the real world; I had to deal with mining companies.


Mining companies are quite interesting. They are hard people until you get their confidence and then they are very good people and have money. So the next high point is the gaining of the confidence of the mining industry and we did that in the period 1970 to 1975/6. It wasn’t just in remote sensing in was in lots of things. Suddenly the mining industry said these people think like Australians because they understand what Australia is like. They might be a bit weird. They might do things like digital technology but we will go with them and put up money. I was chastised about 1978 by the Chief Executive CSIRO for the temerity of having half my operating funds coming from the mining industry.


CR: In today's climate that's deeply ironic. (Agreed by McCracken with laughter about his situation at that time).


KM: My point is that the high point is being able to get your science recognised by the users as being important for their future. An important part of that was the Australian Mineral Foundation through which all our proposals were funnelled into the industry; they were very strongly behind remote sensing. Jim May, the Director of the day, might be able to give you some strategic insights.


That contract for mining industry funding started in 1976 and was extended every three years and is in fact still in existence. Also when we needed the money for the Signal Processing Experiment (SPE) the mining industry was there ready with the money. The success of this experiment then led to the X-band upgrade of ACRES. The Signal Processing Experiment was the official name noting that there were certain sensitivities.


After all of that when I retired, I was asked by BHP to measure the gravity of the Earth from a low-flying aircraft to an accuracy of 1 part in 108 . “You have got to be joking”? I said, to which they replied  “We are not joking”! We found some technology that the American government had paid some $400 million into, which was used in the Trident submarines (if you have read the Hunt for Red October this technology is mentioned. It sent the Pentagon into orbit as no one was supposed to know about it). So a small group of three from BHP of which I was one looked at it and said we will take it. This was where my space background, my digital background, my manufacturing background, was very important to make it a success. So there are my three highlights, next question.


CR: I would like to go back to your talking about the protection of young people or their mentoring whether it’s overt or not, who are the people that provide that to you?


KM: There are two roles; there is the mentor and then there is the protector. The mentor is a direct thing. My mentors were a mathematics teacher back in high school who said trust your instincts and don't worry too much about learning formulae, work them out as you go. Bruno Rossi as I mentioned, and one other Frank McDonald, the one-time Chief Scientist of NASA, from 1959 onwards and I still work with him at the University of Maryland as a visiting Research Fellow each year. Those are the mentors.


Protectors can be the same people of course and Bruno Rossi undoubtedly was. Bruno was at Los Alamos as head of the Instrumentation Group. He had been the first graduate student of Enrico Fermi and so moved in circles that a lot of us don’t aspire to! Bruno was undoubtedly a protector – an expeditor.


Coming to Australia one protector was certainly Victor Burgmann one of the five members of the CSIRO Executive. There are probably others but they don’t come immediately to mind.


CR: Looking in another direction what about people working for you or people you have seen with enough promise, in remote sensing for the moment, for you to protect them?


KM: There are two names which stand out: Andy Green and Jon Huntington. Both were members of my Division; both joined about 1973/74. Andy was a chemist with computer skills who went to the United States, Stanford, as a CSIRO Fellow to do remote sensing using his infrared spectrometer. Jon Huntington was a photo-interpreter, one who initially called it remote non-sense, but with enough vision to see that maybe there was something in this. Those two gentlemen were my lieutenants and is best summarised by the fact that they and I got the Australia Prize. I certainly saw their promise and I backed them and they delivered the goods.


People I was supporting outside, one was Colin Simpson, BMR. A young person who did very well. These are the ones that immediately come to mind in remote sensing.

CR: Broadly on the political and financial/administrative side who had the vision to back this or who stood squarely in your way and said it’s too expensive?


KM: A strength of CSIRO as it was (I can’t comment on CSIRO as it is as I don’t know) was that they said to me set up a Division, you will have funding to a certain level, it’s up to you to cut your cloth accordingly, and you will be able to keep getting more people as in those days CSIRO was expanding by about 10% a year. The Fates knew when I was appointed as two years later this whole thing came to a screeching halt, and everything started to go down and has gone down ever since. Those first three years on the other hand, I had enough money to do anything I could reasonably have wanted to do. Nothing that we did was a copy of anything. We were doing something totally new in all five areas. Sometimes it got derailed before we got it right, but we had enough funding to do that. It was a privilege.


Then when the hard times came we’d made enough progress that through this chap Jim May I was then able to quite aggressively get money from the mining industry to the point that made CSIRO quite uncomfortable. Then again I chose not to ask for impossibilities. If in 1972 I had asked for a receiving station I would not have got it. I was an unknown, even though I was Australian. All my career development was in the United States and people like Burgmann would not have known about that. So by asking for a challenging but not impossible amount of money I was able to grow to a point where I was able to go out and capture big money.


By virtue of the strength of CSIRO, and though the political climate waxed and waned, I suppose the most difficult times were the Frazer years where everything was being pegged back, the CSIRO was, and likely still is, a very good organisation to work for. You were expected to be internationally competitive and provided you acted like that, it works.


Of course later on when we started to develop an appetite to do the X-band “upgrade” and to bring out NASA aeroplanes to fly remote sensing missions around Australia you had to find money. Luckily by then, the mining industry was there to help. The whole story of remote sensing to me is really the mining industry.


But also by 1984 I got sick of running Mineral Physics and I became Director of CSIRO Office of Space Science Applications (COSSA) becoming like a little executive that had money/largess that I could spread into other remote sensing activities. As part of Senator Button’s department, he set up the Australian Space Board and the Board had a serious problem in what to do with the money. As one of the two academics on the Board, me and John Carter, we knew what we wanted to do with it and the other members of the board were happy to go along with what these two academics wanted to do. So 85% of that money went to remote sensing. Other than when they shut off Woomera I cannot say that something was not given to me. I maybe was not demanding enough. I maybe should have asked for more. But as far as I'm concerned the political system as I found it had most of the avenues for somebody who was prepared to go out and find the money to do it.


CR: The final thing I’d like you to talk about is the process for getting the Australian Landsat Station (ALS) set up, starting from the problem from getting the data on tape from NASA.


KM: The first thing to understand is that Landsat sends out a tremendous amount of data so it needs a bandwidth five times that of a television station; this is serious data flow. Initially for Australia the data was recorded on-board the satellite then transmitted onto a tape recorder at College, Alaska and those tapes then went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where they were processed into either photographic images or if you could onto tapes. All the original research was done on photographic images, which were roughly fourth-generation images, which were bloody awful and the research concluded that the technology was bloody awful.


Around 1974 we went back to the tapes and started to see what the technology could really do. Australia from space is an extremely bright continent and the radiometric intensity was way up near the top, near saturation and virtually no contrast. Andy Green realised this was what was happening and hence the poor photo results. Overcoming this was a crucial step.


Then in the failing months of the Whitlam government, Clive Cameron got demoted as he had been a naughty boy and he was made Minister for Science. There was a Whitlam initiative around “How could Science be used better in Australian” so the Australian Science and TEchnology Council (ASTEC) was set up (from memory in the Department of Science). Its first job, as I remember, was that Clive Cameron was phoned up and told “You are now Minister for Science, Clive, and it has been suggested that the first thing you should do is to look at this thing called Landsat”!


Clive got a few people from the University of New South Wales (I have mercifully forgotten who they were) but their attitude was “This was military technology; it is a CIA plot; and no bloody way! The point was that there was no natural constituency. There wasn’t anyone really hammering on the door saying we need this. It was still basically an academic push. Yes, CSIRO is saying “It’s good stuff “, but CSIRO isn’t always right. If you want to find a real wall go back to the middle 70s and from then on the Department of Science and CSIRO were not friends even though they had the same Minister. So the first referral to ASTEC failed and it probably should have.


It was probably when we got substantial mining industry funding in 1976 as the mining industry was “getting a sniff” that there was something here that started the push. They’d come and visit us every three months to see what we were up to. If there was one image that led in a funny sort of way to the ALS it was the one covering Marble Bar. When the mining industry saw that, they knew the country well, and just went off their brains, because they could see stuff that they never knew was there. That one picture was not worth 10,000 words it was worth about 1010 – they saw cratons. It was these cratons that got all the money for our research.


Then CRA discovered diamonds in the Kimberley’s. We had built one of the first computers in Australia to display Landsat images on a screen in a shed at North Ryde and one day I went to visit Andy Green in this shed. When I went in there were a number of people there and they were embarrassed to hell! There was the Chief Exploration Manager of CRA and some of  his top lieutenants getting a private preview of what they could see from Landsat imagery in the Kimberley’s. They of course didn't want anybody to know about what they were looking at.


My point is that CRA immediately decided that they needed some of this equipment so that people like McCracken didn’t keep walking in on them. So by mid-77 the industry was well and truly on its way to get this gear, when they suddenly realised where are the tapes going to come from. The current delayed access via the US was untenable. So in mid-77, ASTEC was asked to look at it again. So while the mining industry lobbied hard for access to these data, agriculture, coastal, ocean and environment people also saw it for future development and were pressing too. With the need established the committee then chaired by Lou Davies (engineer, Rhodes Scholar and then Chief Scientist at AWA) recommended the ALS establishment.


We were extremely fortunate in that the size of Australia is just exactly right to plonk a receiving station in the middle and get coverage of the whole continent. If we had needed two Landsat stations we would have been squabbling over who needed it more. The recommendation was thus a strong recommendation stating, I believe, that 50-60% of the product will be bought (stress bought) by the mining industry and I don’t think that it ever got much below 60% and was 70% for a long time and that this would add to the prosperity of Australia etc etc. The minerals argument carried the main thrust. And I think that answers your question?


CR: Thank you for your time.