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A Spanish village captured the first sign of the landing on the Moon in 1969

The inhabitants of Madrid´s ‘moon landing’ village

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The 1,554 inhabitants of Fresnedillas de la Oliva (Spain) are making preparations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the arrival on the Moon. It was in this small village where the expected Apollo XI landing signal was received through the antenna that NASA installed on their land. That changed the lives of its inhabitants, who now remember how they cooperated in that great step for mankind.

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Enrique Sacristán | April 30 2019 15:57

<p>Among the orchards and farms of Fresnedillas de la Oliva (Madrid), NASA installed one of the three monitoring stations of the manned flights of the Apollo program. / Photo cortesy of Larry Haug/Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station</p>

Among the orchards and farms of Fresnedillas de la Oliva (Madrid), NASA installed one of the three monitoring stations of the manned flights of the Apollo program. / Photo cortesy of Larry Haug/Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station

During one of his visits to NASA's central facilities, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy saw a janitor sweeping and asked why he was there. The clerk replied without hesitation: “Sir, I'm helping put a man on the moon.”

That story is probably a legend, but what is certain is that thousands of workers cooperated from below so that Neil Armstrong could step on the lunar surface that legendary July 20, 1969. Among those people are several ‘jarandos’, as the inhabitants of the Madrid town of Fresnedillas de la Oliva are known.

In the 1960s, NASA arrived in this small agricultural and cattle-breeding village to install one of the huge antennas of the Apollo program.

At that time it was a small agricultural and cattle-breeding village, with a population of little more than 400, and where four years earlier NASA had arrived to install one of the three monitoring stations of the manned flights of the Apollo program. The other two were located in California (USA) and Canberra (Australia) so as not to lose the signal at any time.

The first sentence of a human being when arriving at the Moon was not the well-known “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” but that also said by astronaut Neil Armstrong a few hours before, when the ship landed: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed”. The first place on Earth where those words were heard was the Fresnedillas station.

Among the orchards and the farms where cows and goats were raised, a large antenna, with a 26-metre diameter, was built, as were the buildings where more than one hundred technicians and engineers managed communications between the spacecraft and Houston. A few jarandos were also at work in those modern facilities, mostly in maintenance and service tasks.

A 22-hour day

“Coffee, lots of coffee and more coffee; the Americans drank lots of coffee, especially at night,” recalls Consuelo Alonso, one of the town's residents, who worked as a waitress at the station between 1967 and 1970. During that historic day she worked, like most of the staff, 22 hours in a row.

“The Americans were nice, very smart, very professional, and very polite,” says Consuelo. “They had lunch early, between 11:30 and 1:00 p.m., and it was a good lunch, by the way; one of them used to eat seven eggs with ham and cheese. There was room for about fifty people in the dining room,” she continues. “There was a counter with buttons to keep the food warm, a potato peeler, and a large sink for washing the pots and pans. Everything was very well organized.”

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Kitchen of the old Fresnedillas station, where Consuelo Alonso worked. / Photo courtesy of the former employee

Consuelo tells Sinc that she heard that the lands on which they built the station were “very well paid.” They were actually located in the municipality of Navalagamella, but the owners of the plots were from Fresnedillas. This generated more than one conflict between the two town halls when it came to claiming the fame for their participation in the lunar feat. In the end, so as not to argue, NASA decided to call it the Madrid Space Station.

“Part of my grandfather’s orchard, which was his livelihood, was expropriated from him; and my father, who was the mayor at the time, had to fight hard to defend Fresnedillas and to provide everything necessary for its inhabitants to have a place in the base,” says his daughter, María Nieves de la Peña, who also was hired at the age of 17 to work in the cafeteria at the station.

“Part of my grandfather’s orchard, which was his livelihood, was expropriated from him; and my father, who was the mayor at the time, had to fight hard to defend Fresnedillas.”

“They picked me up in a car pool, which was a shared car where several employees travelled,” she recalls. “Then I would serve coffee all morning in the coffee shop, where the technicians would come before starting work. They had their homes in Madrid. We communicated with each other a little bit in English and also in Spanish, because some were Hispanic. As an anecdote, I can tell you that in their free time they played volleyball under the antenna. I could see them behind the windows.”

When Armstrong stepped on the Moon, Maria Nieves was at the station's communications centre: “I didn't understand, but seeing everyone jump for joy, I assumed that everything had worked well. Then we saw the images on the TV that my parents put in the window. When the connection ended, people went to celebrate in the village, just as we Spaniards do. Americans would organize more formal and boring parties at the Escorial.”

The Apollo couples

“My experience with the people at the base was very good," she continues. “They were very good to me. I felt very sorry I couldn't go on, but I married a technician, the head of general services for the power plant. They convinced me that if I was going to have children, it would be better if I stopped working and stayed at home. That's the way things used to be. The golden brooch they gave me when I left the station was used to make the wedding rings.”

"The golden brooch they gave me when I left the station was used to make the wedding rings,” recalls a former employee

This is not the only example of couples who met at the base. Manuel Basallote, a carpenter from Cádiz, also married a resident of Fresnedillas and stayed here: “I went from building wooden boats in Barbate to workbenches, consoles and computer tables on the space station. I was in it for 18 years and when it was closed in 1985 I moved, like much of the staff, to that in Robledo de Chavela.”

“In the beginning I was involved in the construction of the buildings and the base for the large antenna,” says Basallote. “I had to get used to American tools I had never seen before, like a drawer with a circular saw. I was later more involved with maintenance work, with a lot of partitioning and wall changes with plasterboard.”

“I had several accidents,” he says sadly. “One of them happened when I was travelling with the motorcycle along the road that connects the village with the station. My helmet broke and I smashed my face. Later, making a package for the cone of an antenna they were going to send to Australia, I was working with a 12-drill bit, lost control of it and it broke my elbow bone. I took eleven months off work but was never without my salary, 100% of it.”

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On the left, a page from the Pueblo newspaper of the Franco dictatorship. On the right, Iberian Daily Sun. Both the national and international press echoed the feat experienced in Fresnedillas in July 1969. These and other clippings are exhibited in the town's Lunar Museum. / SINC

Another resident of Fresnedillas who started as a carpenter and worked in the maintenance of the facilities was Rogelio González, who comments that, although the salary was a little better than outside the base, he still had to combine it with other tasks: “Every day I was going to look after the cows and, in addition, I distributed animal food in this area in the afternoons and evenings.”

Scenes from the film The Astronaut, starring Tony Leblanc, were shot at the Fresnedillas station

Bernardino Herrero was likewise an owner of cows, in his case dairy cows. Although he held several different positions, he ended up as the station’s gardener. “We managed to have a very handsome garden of about 4,000 m2. We planted different plant types, we made window boxes, walks, lots of shelves... The machines and the conditions we had here were much better than in the country.”

“The town was totally lost at the time the Americans arrived, but thanks to them things boomed. More than twenty families depended on the base. Spain has never since had a company like NASA-INTA. Then the Spaniards were left alone and it was different: I have never kept quiet about the injustices or frauds I saw,” Herrero says.

The list of Fresnedillas inhabitants who worked at the base and are still alive is diminishing every year, but among them are its former guard, Sebastián Gómez, the bricklayer José Rodríguez Botello, the cook Vicente Hernández de Castillo - famous for preparing very large paellas -, and the loquacious Pedro Zurita, who held various positions and enjoyed talking to everyone: “At the station I got to chat with the crew of the Tony Leblanc film The Astronaut, made in 1970. Some of its scenes were shot here.”

Jarando technicians

In addition to maintenance and catering employees, some jarandos had access to technical positions. One of them was Luis Rodriguez, who joined in at the age of 17 as an electrical assistant, but was trained - in English - at the American Torrejón Air Base and obtained his degree as an antenna mechanic to work in his town's station.

“It's hard work," he says, “because antennas are big and dangerous. You have to work at height of 40 or 50 metres.  We didn't succeed in getting paid a hazard bonus. More than once I had to stay overnight or leave my home to track satellites or ships, like the Skylab station.”

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Workers working on the antenna and diploma given by NASA to Luis Rodriguez for his participation in the Apollo XI mission. / 40th Anniversary Publication

“In any case, I have good memories of my time at the station,” Luis adds. “The night the man arrived on the Moon was one of fear. People screamed and cried. I was going in and out to listen to Jesús Hermida’s broadcast from the United States on a car radio.”

For his part, José López was in charge of the electric power that reached the antennas. This head of the electromechanical team came from General Motors, so passing the tests in English and adapting to the American generators, which operate at 60 hertz and 110 volts instead of 50 Hz and 220 V as in Spain, was no problem for him.

"Without the vital communications between the Apollo XI and the Madrid station, our Moon landing would not have been possible,” Armstrong said

 “I have been working on this for 40 years and I could tell you many anecdotes and conflicts, such as the generator that arrived wet in Cadiz in the hold of a ship. I had to dismantle the whole thing to eliminate the salt water,” José remembers. “I have lost my nails from so much tightening screws and my health is precarious. There were no gloves before for working with batteries.”

“It's been a sacrifice,” he adds. “One of my children was born in Murcia while I was here, keeping an eye on the Apollo XI mission. I missed many family parties or seasons without being able to go out with my wife. It hasn't been a bed of roses.”

But the work of Jose and the rest of the employees at the Fresnedillas base, from the waitresses who served the coffee to those who took care of its facilities and operated the equipment, had its reward: helping to fulfil a dream of mankind.

Three months after stepping on moon´s soil, Armstrong and his colleagues visited Spain. During the reception offered by the U.S. Embassy, the astronaut stressed: "Without the vital communications between the Apollo XI and the Madrid station, our Moon landing would not have been possible.”

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Electromechanical technician José López shows the equipment to Otto Womick (with sunglasses), the first American manager of the Fresnedillas Station. / 40th Anniversary Publication

And what did the Apollo programme give Fresnedillas? Without a doubt, it was a revolution in a rural environment sustained by agricultural and livestock activity. But that's not all. Olivia Ventura, an agricultural engineer and town councillor, talks about the intangible heritage that that NASA station left in the village. “Our grandparents at the time couldn't appreciate the scope of what was happening because they were focused on doing their job, but the next generations have grown up hearing the stories about the antenna and the Moon. It's no coincidence that a few of the grandchildren eventually became engineers.”

Now, the small village lunar museum and the Fresnedillas de la Oliva Town Hall are organizing a multitude of events to commemorate the half-century of man's arrival on the Moon in 2019, with astronomical observations, photographic exhibitions, lectures and gastronomic activities.

Among the participants in the organization are two jarandos that continue the space tradition: engineer Tomás Alonso, who works at the Robledo station managing the signals sent by NASA deep space missions; and physicist Juan Cabrero, who from the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA) cooperates in the manufacture of one of the instruments that will carry the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission to seek life on Mars.

For the time being, Cabrero must continue to explain in his talks that we did reach the Moon. His neighbours, who experienced it, know that it is true.

The Lunar Museum of Fresnedillas de la Oliva

“Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Those first words from Armstrong received from the Fresnedillas station are remembered on a panel at the entrance to the town's Lunar Museum, “inaugurated in 2009 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary and now awaiting transfer to a new headquarters,” says its manager, Elena Hernandez.

Inside you can find a collection of 300 objects related to space missions: astronaut suits (including those of Pedro Duque and Miguel López Alegría), a showcase dedicated to the visionary Emilio Herrera, the original flight plan of the Apollo XI mission, a model of the Saturn V rocket made with Lego bricks, a Spanish flag that was on the Moon, machines from the former Fresnedillas station, commemorative medals, etc.

FOTOMUSEO

Among the donors of these pieces are Jordi Gasull, producer and scriptwriter of the film Atrapa la Bandera (Catch the Flag), and engineer José Manuel Grandela, one of the technicians who entered the Fresnedillas station to participate in all manned flights to the Moon.

With regard to the large 26-metre antenna where the first human signal arrived from the Moon, in 1985 it was transferred from Fresnedillas station to Robledo de Chavela station, where it was operational until 2008 and is now preserved as a huge museum piece, visible from the road.

Geographical area: International
Source: SINC

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