Tue. Aug 20th, 2019

Luis Ruiz de Gopegui: The head of the Spaniards who helped take the man to the moon dies | Science


On the night of July 20, 1969, Luis Ruiz de Gopegui was not aware that he was living a historical moment. He was one of the few Spaniards who followed the progress of a spaceship that was 384,000 kilometers from a radio station located in a remote lowland landscape in Fresnedillas de la Oliva, near Madrid, second to second. There were a few hours left for a human to step on the Moon for the first time.

"I have no spectacular memories," Ruiz de Gopegui confessed last July in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. "We were there and we had to watch carefully the moment when the surface of the Moon was touched, because from the ship itself it was not seen, and as soon as it did we should transmit it to Houston," recalled the physicist, who spent almost 30 years working at NASA space tracking stations in Spain and ended up being its director.

Ruiz de Gopegui died yesterday at his home in Madrid at age 90. He was one of the first people in the world to hear Neil Armstrong's words that night: “Houston, here I base Tranquility. The Eagle It has landed". It was 9:17 pm in Madrid and humanity had just landed on the moon.

“I prefer to understand why to be the king of Persia”

Bethlehem Gopegui

Ruiz de Gopegui was the father of the novelist Belén Gopegui, who has written these lines. “My father loved science because he loved life. He often remembered Democritus' phrase: 'I'd rather understand why to be the king of Persia.' These days many memories come to us from people who treated him and who evoke his affection, his cordiality, his humor. He was the best of grandparents and I can't imagine a more generous father with me. Among all his books I want to mention Cybernetics of the human, of which one day his anticipation and his tragic but vital optimism will be recognized, and Six children on Mars Y Ludwig, the alien, as a sign of his warm imagination. Until his last days my father wanted to bring all his experience and understanding to the people who approached him, with his eyes on the Cosmos and his feet on Earth. "

The words of the Apollo 11 commander first arrived at Fresnedillas and half a second later they were bounced to the rest of the stations. At that time Ruiz de Gopegui thought that what he was living was the opening of a connection with the Moon that would never close; It would be like a constant airlift. That the man has not returned to the Moon 50 years later is one of the things that most "incredible" seemed to him.

This doctor of physics lived in a high-tech bubble in the middle of the gray Spain of Franco. He began working for the Institute of Aerospace Technology, under the Ministry of Air, in the summer of 1966, as a specialist in the Fresnedillas de la Oliva antenna. The NASA Spain had chosen to install space tracking bases for its manned and deep-space flights on the outskirts of Madrid, where there were no isolated places without interference that were reasonably close to the Barajas airport, to which American engineers arrived and from where planes took off with the magnetic tapes that were recorded every minute of the Apollo missions, including "Houston we have a problem" of Apollo 13.

At first, almost all the workers at the Fresnedillas and Robledo de Chavela stations were American, but Franco's government was in charge of signing an agreement with NASA that made it clear that all the facilities should end up being managed by Spanish personnel. Ruiz de Gopegui, who in addition to his doctorate in physics at the University of Barcelona had studied a master's degree in Electronic Engineering from Stanford University, in California, became director of Fresnedillas since December 1972 and later head of all stations of the NASA in Spain, with about 350 people in charge.

In September 1968, after spending 18 months doing the military, a young 24-year-old radiotelegraphist named Carlos González Painted He underwent a job interview with Ruiz de Gopegui. He recommended that he be hired and sent to the US to train. "That interview marked my entire professional life," recalls Pintado, who worked all his life for NASA in Fresnedillas and Robledo until his retirement in 2011. "He deserved to be honored by NASA."

Looking back, "it seems as if some of those who were present during the arrival of man on the Moon were the discoverers of America," recalls José Manuel Urech, former director of the Cebreros Deep Space Station (Ávila). “He always told the truth and never denied that it was the Americans who wore the baton, he didn't fool anyone. Still we could show that the Spaniards of the time were able to take care of the stations, ”he explains. NASA transferred Cebreros to the Spanish in 1969 and Fresnedillas in December 1972.

Luis Ruiz de Gopegui, during a digital interview with the readers of 'El País' in 2001.


Luis Ruiz de Gopegui, during a digital interview with the readers of 'El País' in 2001.

In his book Cosmic Messengers (McGraw-Hill), 1994, Gopegui wrote that on July 18, 1975, the Houston communications director ordered him to destroy the video tape ASTP / 35/4. The tape had been recorded the day before, when the American ship Apollo and the Soviet Soyuz were about to engage in space to stage the friendship of the two opposing powers. The petition passed to the director of INTA-NASA, then to the general director, from him to the Minister of Air, General Mariano Cuadra, and, finally, to Franco himself, who said: “- Mariano, what do you tell me all about? this? If they have been told to destroy the videotape, then destroy it and something else. ”

By then Gopegui and other companions had already seen the tape, in which nothing was seen, although one of them, José Manuel Grandela, thought he saw a point of light: “That is a UFO! It's clearer than water! ”He exclaimed. But it was not that. NASA itself told Gopegui to listen to the tape's audio. Then everything was clear. A few moments before the coupling, the Soviet ship began to nod. “The pilot Donald Slayton, a 51-year-old astronaut with no good humor and bad speech, was getting nervous with the headers that made it difficult to dock, and he couldn't take it anymore and exclaimed: Sons of a bitch! ("Sons of a bitch"). But is it that you are not able to keep your "bird" still? Then we understood that if that phrase reached the media, it could trigger an international conflict, ”wrote Ruiz de Gopegui, who never destroyed the tape, according to his story.

Fresnedillas station played a crucial role on the day of the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia in April 1981. After the takeoff, there was a critical moment in which the rockets broke off and the control center had to decide whether the ship should go ahead to settle in the Earth's orbit or abort the mission and land emergency on military bases of Zaragoza, Morón and Canarias, recalls Toni Carro, representative of NASA in Spain. A few seconds after launch, the Meritt Island station, near Cape Canaveral, stopped communicating due to a failure. The next station, Bermuda, also broke down. “If the station in Spain also failed, they could not know if it had entered orbit or not. Fortunately, this was not the case and the Fresnedillas station came into contact with the Columbia ship normally, transmitting the data to Houston, where there was a great applause when it was confirmed that it had entered orbit and that the mission did not have to be aborted, ”Gopegui wrote. your book Men in Space (McGraw-Hill). Ruiz de Gopegui wrote 11 essays and novels, most of them after his retirement in 1994. "He was the man for everything, NASA's contact with the station staff," adds Carro.

In his last conversation with this newspaper, Ruiz de Gopegui was very critical of Donald Trump's plans to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024. “One thing is to say it and another to do it. In any case we will take much longer to return and it is not worth it. There is nothing there anymore and we have other better places to travel, like Mars. ”

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