How a Tiny Spanish Suburb Helped Put Neil Armstrong on the Moon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In 1969, Fresnedillas was a small village in Spain, but it helped make a giant leap.
By Maria Clara Montoya
Carlos González Pintado was going to work for the phone company. At least that was his plan in 1965 when he applied for a job with Madrid-based communications giant Telefónica. But at the last minute, he was told he’d need to go back and finish his mandatory military service. Eighteen months later, he returned — only to find the job had changed. Instead, Pintado would be communicating with American astronauts from a newly built space communications center, helping them in their mission to land on the moon.
Located about 30 miles from Madrid, Fresnedillas de la Oliva hosted a NASA antenna that operated for close to two decades and was crucial for communicating with humanity’s space endeavor, including Apollo 11’s manned moon mission. Beginning with Apollo 7, the station was connected to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) — along with centers in California’s Mojave Desert and in Canberra, Australia — to transmit signals between the missions and Earth. Fresnedillas was no space hub at the time; it was just well-placed geographically, as the spacecraft had to stay connected no matter which side of the Earth it faced.
Pintado, one of the first NASA employees in Spain and the former chief of operations for the station, explains that for Spain — which was still under the decades-long authoritarian regime of Gen. Francisco Franco — the connection to the wider world via the space program was game-changing. “We were coming out of the womb,” he says. “We weren’t a third world country, but we were still developing — and the installation of the antennas meant the end of ostracism somehow.”
The American administration didn’t want to be involved with Franco’s government. But Spain was perfectly located for NASA’s purposes. Meanwhile, it gave Franco the chance to participate in an international project and build a relationship with the United States. Beginning in the early 1960s, NASA installed monitoring stations in the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory, and a few others around the country.
For the people of Fresnedillas, the station was not only a point of pride; it was a way to make a living. Before its opening, most people in the village had jobs farming or raising cattle. Pablo Jesús Serrano, hired as an engineer at the station in 1970 when he was 21, reckons he outearned his father and siblings put together. “We had to work every day of the year at different hours,” he explains. “So you can imagine that work-life balance was difficult.” Serrano left his job in 1985 after participating in the Skylab mission, which established the first space station. He later founded Eiit, a company focused on aerospace.
Hours before the moon landing, employees were feeling optimistic. They knew it was a decisive moment for humanity and for the space program — but the previous few missions had gone well, and Pintado says they felt prepared: “The only difference from the previous missions was that this time, the astronauts were going to leave their footprints on the moon.”
In the station, they had the chance to check on the physical condition of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Pintado and the scores of others working in Fresnedillas could hear the emotionless voices of engineers in Houston, pitched to maintain calm among the astronauts.
“But we could verify that when they descended from the spaceship, Armstrong’s pulse boosted from 85 beats per minute to 120,” Pintado remembers. Pulses on Earth were speeding too, as they heard the astronauts’ voices crackle through: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” But the team in Fresnedillas heard those words 0.3 seconds before Houston did: The Spanish base was the first on Earth to receive the transmission.
After the moon landing, Fresnedillas kept its antennae until 1987, supporting the Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab missions and the first space shuttle flights, according to the Spanish Institute for Aerospace Technology. When the antennae were transferred to another Spanish station, the country’s ministry of defense repurposed Fresnedillas’ center as a military tech complex. Since then, two Spanish people have been in space: Michael López-Alegría, who was born in Madrid but raised in the U.S., went on multiple missions in the 1990s and spent a cumulative 257 days in space, while Pedro Duque visited the International Space Station before entering politics and becoming Spain’s first minister for science, innovation and universities. Duque, who was just 6 years old when Armstrong walked on the moon, announced earlier this year that Spain will up its contributions to the European Space Agency by 30 percent by 2026, which works out to more than 700 million euros.
The moon mission made a difference closer to home as well. Tomás Alonso was a 9-year-old in Fresnedillas when Armstrong set foot on the moon; he was part of what he describes as “a generation [that] felt captivated by this achievement.” The local link, he says, spurred his own interest in science and he became an engineer. In 2009 — the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 — Alonso began a campaign for a Museum of the Moon, which opened that same year thanks to the support of the village’s mayor and the aid of hundreds of local volunteers. The museum, made up of three wooden chalets, closed a few months ago to make way for a more ambitious Center for Space and Science, to be inaugurated July 20. Fresnedillas has planned a slate of film screenings and workshops to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the mission, and the village’s part in it.
The Fresnedillas Space Tracking Station is now closed to the public. But González, Serrano and many of their former co-workers will go back to visit it and celebrate how their small village, in its small way, helped put humans on the moon.
- Maria Clara Montoya, OZY Author Contact Maria Clara Montoya