In November 1999 ACRES celebrated its 20th anniversary. At the formal celebrations Don Gray spoke about how ACRES came into being as the ALS through to his retirement in 1989. Donís talk from that night has been transcribed from his notes and is reproduced below.
The Federal Budget handed down in August 1977, contained an amount of $4 million in the Department of Science allocations for the establishment of facilities in Australia to receive, archive, process and distribute data from the NASA Landsat Satellite Program.
This was the culmination of a number of years of lobbying for funds. The Earth Resources Technology Satellite ERTS-1, later renamed Landsat-1, was launched in 1972. Australian researchers, particularly in the mining and exploration field, but also to a lesser extent, in agriculture, were quick to recognise the potential of satellite multispectral data. They instituted research programs using data purchased from the USA. However, the supply of data was somewhat intermittent being dependent on what data NASA chose to collect on the satellite onboard tape recorders. The recorders themselves also proved to be far from reliable. It soon became obvious that countries which wished to conduct experimental, and eventually operational, remote sensing programs would have to establish their own ground stations.
A loosely knit organisation of potential users, ACERTS came into being. They provided the Department of Science with much of the justification, which was used in Cabinet submissions for the allocation of funds. Prominent names from that era include Dr Ken McCracken the Chief of the CSIRO Division of Mineral Physics and Colin Simpson who was a Senior Research Geologist with the BMR. John Ryan was the Assistant Secretary in the Department of Science who had carriage of the submissions.
The task of implementing the project was assigned to the American Projects Branch (later Space Projects Branch) of the Department of Science. This branch had been responsible for some years for the management and operation of NASA facilities in Australia (six tracking stations and the NASA communications network). At that time I was Station Director of Honeysuckle Creek which had seen its halcyon days in the Apollo and SKYLAB manned space flight programs, but was by then part of the unmanned Deep Space Network and destined for closure within two years. Quite fortuitously, I was scheduled to attend a Deep Space Network Station Director's Conference in California and Bob Leslie the Senior Assistant Secretary, Space Projects Branch asked me to extend my trip to NASA HQ and GSFC to discuss terms and conditions for direct access to the Landsat satellite, and to visit the Canadian Department of Mines, Energy and Resources which operated two Landsat stations and the Canadian Center for Remote Sensing.
On my return and debriefing, Bob Leslie glumly informed me that he'd been able to find a suitable candidate to head up the project. My appetite had been whetted, and God help me, I volunteered. I will never know if this might have been Bob's intention all along. My name was submitted to the Minister and eventually in February 1978 my appointment was confirmed. In the interim I had started on the Landsat project part-time and my first office, the birth of the Australian Landsat Station, was a desk in a hallway of Scarborough House, Phillip, which was jointly occupied by the Department of Science and the Patents Office.
Choosing the site for the Station was the first task and Alice Springs being almost the geographic centre of Australia virtually chose itself as the site for the antenna and receiving facilities but it was soon apparent that this was not a good location from which to conduct a highly technical, computer and photographic facility particularly in regard to the recruitment and retention of professional and sub-professional staff. After inspection of a number of candidate sites in Alice Springs colocation with the CSIRO Arid Land Management Research Facility was chosen. Canberra as a site reasonably accessible to all potential users and located close to the Department of Science was selected as a site for the Data Processing Facility.
Prior to preparing specifications a hectic, six-week, whirlwind, fact-finding tour was undertaken. We visited ground stations in Italy, Brazil and Canada; the EROS Data Centre in Sioux Falls, South Dakota which was responsible for data distribution, and GSFC to discuss operational aspects.
With that information onboard we started writing specifications but sought help with image enhancement and geometric accuracy specifications. Once again Ken McCracken to the rescue. Requests for Tender were issued in about June 1978 and evaluation began in September. Contracts were let to MDA for the electronics and Datron for the antenna. Delivery was scheduled for a year later.
Space was allocated in the old George's discount store, in Oatley Court, Belconnen, for the DPF and specifications were drawn up. Frantic outfitting started to meet the anticipated delivery times for the equipment. It is perhaps significant that the building was formerly occupied by George's discount store, which went broke.
During this time the Department of Science decided that independent outside advice on the future directions of the ALS was needed. ALCORSS was formed with representation from all States, Academia and private industry. CUCRS, which had virtually replaced ACERTS, was instituted and also had representation on ALCORSS.
How data would be distributed was a matter for some concern. At ALCORSS suggestion the mapping agencies in each State were approached and agreed to become ALS Distributors. Two private companies, Technical and Field Surveys and Aerial Photographs were also appointed.
Well the great day came some 20 years ago when the ALS was declared operational. Within a month ALS has a three-month backlog of orders. Application for additional funds to increase to a 24 hour a day operation was made but nothing was forthcoming for six months and then only in response to a full submission for less than $50,000 to see out that financial year. By that time the backlog was out to eight months. Eventually it was bought under control and with the initial surge of demand diminishing operations were reduced to the one shift. However, the lesson had been learned - have enough funding in hand to increase working hours when demand dictates.
Not long after, responsibility for the Landsat program was transferred from NASA to NOAA and the first and almost fatal consequence was that access fees increased from US$200,000 to US$600,000 per annum. Thus began another round of bidding for funding which was eventually granted but under the threat of minute scrutiny of revenue performance by the Department of Finance.
Then in the mid-80s Landsat-4 came along. Submissions for funding again seemed difficult to progress. Thanks once again to Ken McCracken's good offices. The CSIRO Division of Radio Physics came up with an interim Landsat-4 tracking system that enabled us to at least receive and archive the data. AMIRA put together a data processing system, which enabled the raw data to be converted to a raw CCT format, which the more sophisticated users were able to process.
About this time the Department of Science put the ALS up for grabs to any other Department which wanted to take it on. Two organisations, ASO and NATMAP, entered the bidding the ALS eventually going to NATMAP.
One immediate benefit was that the Director of National Mapping agreed with my need for a Deputy and in due course Carl McMaster was appointed. In addition, the Satellite Data Application Section became part of ALS.
Strangely we might consider that with the advent of AUSLIG remote sensing and satellites began to proliferate. SPOT came along in 1986, MOS a year later. Funds for upgrading again were sought and when approved in 1987 ALS became ACRES.
I made the decision at that time that I would see the upgrade through to completion finally retiring on 3 November 1989.