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To the moon and back from Madrid: Spain's role in the 1969 mission
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Jun 2, 2019
EXACTLY half a century ago – minus a couple of months – the world didn't know where to look first: at the TV, where a fellow human was shown on screen walking on the moon, or up at the moon itself, trying to imagine him there.
In Spain on that day, just as everywhere else on Planet Earth, there was only one topic of conversation – and here in the western Mediterranean, on July 20, 1969, one man became a household name overnight.
You thought we were going to say 'Neil Armstrong'.
Well, he was pretty famous in Spain from that moment on, too, but Jesús Hermidia was the TV reporter whose job it was to recount, small step by small step, giant leap by giant leap, what was going on up there in the sky, voicing the words of the Apollo 11 team in the national language so millions of viewers could understand them.
Quite a responsibility, especially as Hermidia was guaranteed the attention of every TV watcher that day: Televisión Española (TVE), Spain's answer to BBC 1 and still running today (in fact, the current Queen Consort of Spain, Letizia, used to be a newsreader on it) was the only channel available back then, and its content approved and controlled by the national leader, dictator General Franco.
“It was an exhausting day,” Hermidia said afterwards, unnecessarily.
“There was so much work.
“When I came out of the NASA station I looked up at the sky, at the moon, and said to myself, there are two blokes up there and I'm the one who's just told everyone about it, I can't believe it.”
Noise and interference – but still a man-made wonder
Over 720 million people worldwide watched Armstrong stepping out of the Apollo 11. That would seem like pretty poor viewing figures today – barely a tenth of the planet's population – but we've more than doubled in number since then, from 3.61 billion to 7.44 billion, and the national headcount in the USA alone was only 200 million, so more than three-and-a-half times that were glued to the box. And television was still a relative luxury, largely limited to the developed world – even there, very low-income households could not afford one. Those who didn't own a set, though, if they were lucky, had a wealthier neighbour who did, and these wealthier neighbours had packed-out lounges on that day.
Television, of course, was far less of a reliable viewing platform in 1969. In Spain, for example, technical problems, noise and general interference affecting the showing; only half of Armstrong's famous first words on the moon were heard at all – translated to Spanish watchers as Un paso para la humanidad, or 'one step for humanity' – and even, at one point, the moon vanished from the screen and the programme cut to a Japanese reporter speaking. But all this was par for the course 50 years ago.
Moon landings may not have happened without Spain's help
Hermidia was, although the national face of the moon landing, only one cog in a massive wheel from Spain's point of view. Now just one of a number of competing mobile phone and internet providers and going under the name of Movístar, the nationwide telecoms company Telefónica was crucial to Spaniards' being able to watch Armstrong's feat: it carried out a vital role in broadcasting between the primitive mission control centre in the USA (which would later become known globally as 'Houston'), the astronauts, and the Apollo 11 (third picture), and screens thousands of kilometres away in south-western Europe.
Of the 400,000 people around the world who took part in every step of the moon landing – from the scientific and technological side through to broadcasting – at least 400 of those were from Spain and working from the two main space stations on Spanish soil which played a fundamental part in the mission.
These were in Buitrago, Greater Madrid region, and between Maspalomas and Agüimes, Gran Canaria, and had been set up by Telefónica at NASA's request in the mid-1960s to cover the Apollo programme, providing operational support, data management, voiceover, and TV via satellite.
Actually, if it wasn't for Spain and, specifically, Telefónica, the Apollo 11's launch would have been cancelled: a communications issue threatened the entire project, which the telecommunications firm was mostly responsible for solving. Remember that next time you get your mobile phone bill, and pay it with a smile: a ground-breaking, earth-shattering feat of science was made possible thanks to your provider, which was then the only phone operator in the country.
Spain's first man on the moon: Science minister Pedro Duque
Telefónica and NASA would continue to work closely together with future moon missions, including the one involving current science and universities minister Pedro Duque, Spain's first man on the moon and second man in space after Miguel López-Alegría.
Duque (fourth picture) became every child's hero in 1998 and again in 2003, and since joining national government, has revealed a fistful of fascinating facts about the big black mass above us: such as, when watching the Earth from space, you see the sun rise every hour and a half; Almería's famous tomato-growing greenhouses can, indeed, be seen from outer space, and that most people, when experiencing zero gravity for the first time, 'get dizzy and throw up'.
Want to find out more?
If Spain's role in the moon landings has left you intrigued – and how could it not? - you can dig even deeper and uncover even more amazing info at the De Madrid a la Luna ('From Madrid to the Moon') exhibition in Spain's capital.
Run by and based at the Telefónica Foundation Hall, you'll see reconstructions, models of spaceships, photographs, certificates signed by NASA and presented to individuals and companies to prove their role in the mission, along with other unique artefacts of great historical value.
Among these are an original letter from Telefónica's board of directors, dated in 1960, confirming that a 'line between Maspalomas beach and Las Palmas [de Gran Canaria]' would 'shortly' be 'entering in service' in order to 'supply the Project Mercury installations'.
Additionally, the original signed contract between Telefónica and NASA from 1967, confirming the former's major part in the future moon landings, and a scale model of the Apollo 11 are on display.
The exhibition runs until November 17, 2019, giving you plenty of time to plan your mission to the moon and back via Madrid.
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