One small Spanish village, one giant leap for mankind: James Dyson finds out how Fresnedillas de Oliva helped put man on the Moon
It was a warm summer evening when Carmen first suggested we take a trip to the Moon.
Her proposal seemed all the more unrealistic given that Mériem, Jesús and I were sitting in a Madrid tapas bar at the time. After all, Spain's capital is thousands of miles from Cape Canaveral, or any other location likely to provide us with the means of lunar travel.
But Carmen wasn't joking and in a few days the four of us were on our way... in a rental car.
It has to be said that our lunar destination was more metaphorical than literal but hardly less surprising for that.
The village of Fresnedillas de Oliva lies in a shallow valley on the edge of the Sierra de Guadarrama some 35 miles west of Madrid. For centuries its inhabitants have used the surrounding rocky and bramble-strewn pastures to scrape out a living as livestock farmers – but exactly 50 years ago all that changed.
On another hot summer, in July 1967, the villagers looked on as an 85-foot-wide antennae dish tilted towards the skies for the first time. It was the crowning glory of the newly-constructed Fresnedillas Manned Spacecraft Tracking Station – or what the US Space agency NASA simply called 'Madrid Apollo'.
Suddenly, this remote rural backwater had become the third set of eyes and ears for what was to be the world's greatest feat of space exploration to date: landing a man on the Moon.
The other two Apollo tracking stations were Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle in Canberra, Australia: each positioned 120° longitude apart to ensure that NASA never lost contact with its astronauts as they headed to the orbiting Moon.
But although Goldstone can still be visited today and Honeysuckle, or at least the nearby Parks station, gained fame in the 2000 Australian film 'The Dish', Madrid Apollo has all but disappeared from the annals of history.
Indeed, as we drove into the sleepy sierra village under a baking July sun, there was no sign of the tracking station. The antennae has long since gone, as have the 200-odd Spanish and American technicians that once manned the lunar communications centre.
Fortunately, the Mayor of Fresnedillas has fought hard to right this injustice and seven years ago Spain's first and only museum to Space exploration was inaugurated on the outskirts of the village.
It isn't easy to find. The 'Museo Lunar: Centro de Interpretación Espacial' is housed in a modest wooden building, almost totally hidden from the road behind a row of trees.
But it's certainly worth the effort, because just inside the museum's main gates is the clearest reminder possible of why the Fresnedillas tracking station was so important.
A large plaque bearing the Apollo 11 insignia proudly proclaims Neil Armstrong's now famous confirmation that man had landed on the Moon: “Houston, Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was exactly what NASA's Mission Control and some half a billion TV viewers around the world had been waiting for. But how did they get the news? The answer is right here in Fresnedillas.
Of the three Apollo tracking stations, only Madrid Apollo had communications visibility of the Eagle Lunar Module as it made its dramatic final descent on 20 July 1969.
Inside the museum, some of the equipment used to communicate with the Lunar Module looks more like an old telephone exchange than anything capable of processing signals from 230,000 miles away. But it did the job. Thanks to Fresnedillas, NASA knew that Armstrong had taken manual control of the module to avoid a crash landing, while the astronauts could hear Mission Control count down the seconds of fuel they had left to land. Equally, when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took off to return to the orbiting Command Module, Fresnedillas was again the only one of the three Apollo tracking stations in communication with the two spacecraft.
As Armstrong himself put it during a visit to Spain three months later, “Without the vital communications maintained between Apollo 11 and the Madrid Apollo station, our landing on the Moon would simply not have been possible.”
In fact, the station at Fresnedillas went on to provide communications for every single manned NASA mission – right up until the 1985 flight of the Discovery space shuttle. And today, the Lunar Museum houses more than 300 space artefacts from the era. It's all there: from astronaut suits, freeze dried space food, flight plans, and Russian artefacts from the historic 1975 Apollo-Soyuz link up, to the first photo of Earth taken by man from the Moon – received by Madrid Apollo on Christmas Eve 1968.
However, perhaps the most emotive exhibits are the old newspaper headlines from the time, and a large black and white photo of the American and Spanish technicians gathered beneath the station's antennae dish. It was very much a 'can do' and 'make do' spirit. Most of the Americans were simply school-educated former soldiers who had learnt their trade in the military, while their Spanish counterparts were marine radio operators, radio repairmen and even traffic light installers. In 1960s Spain, many of the more qualified technicians simply didn't have enough English to work with NASA.
The American technicians eventually returned home and the Madrid Apollo station finally closed in 1985. But our trip wasn't quite over yet.
As with Goldstone and Honeysuckle, NASA had insisted on the need for a nearby back-up station in case of any technical failure – and that station still exists today.
So, after lunch we took a winding country road south under the setting sun. And there, some 10 miles out of Fresnedillas, our curiosity was rewarded. Emerging from another wooded valley was a 230-foot-wide antennae dish: the centre piece of the impressively-named Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex.
In 1985, many of the Spanish employees at Fresnedillas moved here to continue their work tracking missions to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. But as we walked around the perimeter, the station that still bears NASA's insignia appeared to be totally deserted. Then, suddenly, a loud siren echoed around the valley and the enormous dish began tilting towards the horizon.
What it was searching for, we had no way of knowing, but one thing was certainly clear: almost half a century since those first Spanish technicians helped land a man on the Moon, their successors are still here in this remote rural outpost probing the mysteries of our universe.
We set off home as twilight descended over the sierra. Hovering over the skyline, large and yellow, Earth's natural satellite accompanied us on our journey. Carmen had been right. Madrid is much closer to the Moon than any of us had imagined.
See for yourself
El Museo Lunar
The Lunar Museum can be found at Calle B, 11-3, 28214 Fresnedillas de la Oliva, Madrid. It is open from 10am to 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays. It can also be visited during weekdays by appointment. Tel. (+ 34) 91 898 90 09. Ext. 8 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost: 3€ for adults, 2€ for children under 14. It is free for under 5s and OAPs.
Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex
The address of the Complex is Carretera de Colmenar del Arroyo - Robledo de Chavela M-531 Km.7 Robledo de Chavela 28294 Madrid. The Complex Visitors' Centre is open from 10am to 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The Centre can also be visited during weekdays between 9am and 5pm but only with a previous appointment. Tel. (+34) 918677321. Entrance is free. For further information see the Complex´s English website: www.mdscc.nasa.gov/index.php
Green Adventures September 2017
James Dyson is a British journalist and communications consultant based in Madrid. At Dysoncommunications.com, he publishes a blog on cultural and professional events, as well as communication tips and advice. His Spanish-language blog Teosiesta focuses on the similarities and differences between British and Spanish society and culture.
to the Moon