Ruiz de Gopegui, Luis

The explorer Luis Ruiz de Gopegui

by Belén Gopegui

Six children have managed to land on Mars and you know this because someone called Luis Ruiz de Gopegui has told you about it. Luis is a scientist-writer and I am his daughter. When I was younger he worked at the ‘space station’, as we used to say at home. No, it was not one of the stations that would later orbit the Earth, but I thought it was just as wonderful. The sign on the door, as if announcing the start of an adventure, read: ‘Fresnedillas Installation for Manned Space Flights (MFSN): authorised entry only’. Among rocks, shrubs, and deserted hills were two low buildings next to a large white antenna, twenty-six metres in diameter. Years later it was taken to the Deep Space Communications Complex in Robledo de Chavela, where it remains today along with eight other antennas of different sizes. Since it is the oldest, they call it Dino, although for me it was just ‘the antenna’. In my world no others existed. I remember going to visit it several times, with friends or with school, and I know one time we climbed quite high, but without reaching the plate. I liked that is was called ‘plate’. A soup plate, of course.

One of the things my father taught me about science was to find similar links between the events that take place in a prodigious universe —at an almost unimaginable distances, with more than a hundred million stars in our galaxy alone— and other more common events, the normal things of everyday life. A space antenna is not only a sophisticated device capable of establishing communications with distant spaceships: it is also a huge soup plate sustained on iron bars so it reaches a great altitude, a plate that moves and manages to concentrate the energy received from far away in the concave vertex, turning it into electromagnetic waves. Perhaps soup plates, those in our everyday life, also have an identical vertex, one in which we concentrate our thoughts and dreams while, spoonful by spoonful, we eat, we grow.

My father told me that during the war, when he was a young boy, he could not go to school: however, some afternoons he and his sister would visit a mansion where my grandfather was hiding, and there he would read them books such as Ben Hur, Lewis Wallace’s novel, and adventures of pirates. Since then, he told me, he liked stories. And although life forced him to become the character of a few of them, leaving him little to no time to invent his own, in the end he was able to write some of those he had imagined. As for the ones that really happened: Luis Ruiz de Gopegui was born in Madrid on 16 February 1929. He studied Physical Science, he then attended the University of Stanford with a scholarship, he returned to Madrid, and worked in the Spanish National Research Council’s Department of High Frequency Electronics. One day he saw an advertisement in the newspaper: ‘Staff are required for the Space Vehicle Tracking station in Robledo de Chavela’. They needed people who could speak English and knew about electronics. My father met both requirements, he applied and he was selected. This can seem rather normal, but if we put it in a film or a novel, I am certain no one would believe it, especially today when so many people struggle to work doing what they know.

My father became the head of the radio-frequency equipment at the Robledo de Chavela station, until two years later he was transferred to the station in Fresnedillas. There was the white-coloured antenna which I climbed as a child, and it was not just any antenna: in 1969, it was used to track the Apollo XI spaceship on its journey to the Moon. Three stations were needed to cover the entire outer space so that the ship would never lose communication: one in the United States, one in Australia, and the third one in Madrid, in Fresnedillas de la Oliva. Madrid was in contact with the spaceship for eight hours a day. It was during those hours that the astronaut Neil Armstrong said: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed’ announcing to the world, through the small Houston at Fresnedillas, that the Apollo XI was already on the Moon. The Spanish and North American technicians at the station were the ship’s only terrestrial contact during the entire landing, the most critical phase of the mission.

From Earth, Luis Ruiz de Gopegui followed many other space flights, he was in communication with the Apollo XIII when the technical problems began, participated in the last mission of the Apollo programme, the Apollo-Soyuz, in which the first in orbital docking between the Soviet ship, Soyuz, and the North American one, Apollo, was achieved. Since the docking took place right on the vertical of Madrid, Fresnedillas was in charge of tracking it. While the maneuvers were taking place, a very funny story happened with the astronauts and the tape that recorded all they said. If you are curious, you can search on the Internet for the video in which Luis tells the story, or better yet, there is a book he wrote, titled Mensajeros Cósmicos (Cosmic Messengers), in which this and other anecdotes are included, as well as the beautiful proposal of a galactic Noah’s ark.

Luis also participated in programmes related to the so-called ‘Skylab’, a construction designed to carry out activities in outer space. Skylab was slightly similar to this book’s spaceship, because astronauts spent a lot of time inside it: the first ones to visit spent four entire weeks there. Skylab orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979, which means the author of this book was involved in the flights of the space shuttle, a ship capable of putting men and satellites into orbit and return to Earth. For the last ten years of his career, Luis was director of all of NASA programmes in Spain. Throughout his life he has also collaborated with other prestigious space agencies, such as the European ESA, the Japanese NASDA, and GLAVKOSMOS of the former Soviet Union.

During all that time, letters from all over the world, sometimes addressed to him personally, used to arrive claiming the had seen an alien or several of them, UFOs, or asking if it was true that remains of other civilizations had been found during space flights. Luis Ruiz de Gopegui has always said that he would love to meet an extraterrestrial, and if he ever saw one, and they also happened to understand our language, the first word he would say to them would be: ‘Friend!’. However, as any good scientist, he greatly respects the data in which he articulates well-known, proven, and real facts, or at least they seem so until that moment. And none of those letters or the news published from time to time in media referred to anything that could truly be an extraterrestrial presence. Since Luis likes to explain things, and since he also had a job related to these matters, for many years he received calls from journalists asking to interview him and participate in debates in which he had to explain how what for others had seemed like an extraterrestrial being, was actually an insect that had flown in front of the telescope, or an effect of the imagination, or the Sun hitting the wing of an air vehicle.

He had to explain this concept so many times that he ended up writing a book titled Extraterrestres ¿mito o realidad? (Extraterrestrials, Myth or Reality?), in which he presents different arguments for and against the existence of aliens. In the book he argues that it is improbable for intelligence to exist in other planets, and more so that we will ever coincide with it in space and time, and even more improbable we would share the necessary similarities to make communication possible. What he does not tell in that book is that one night, when he was walking near Cuzco Square and the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, some mysterious lights aimed at him from the sky. For how long? Two minutes perhaps, or maybe five. In any case, it was enough time for Luis Ruiz de Gopegui to believe, if only for a few seconds, that he had been discovered by those improbable but wanted beings. The scientific explanation for that experience is called a helicopter: apparently, there had been an important football match that night and helicopters were flying over the area for security reasons. But there are also literary explanations: perhaps somewhere far far away there is intelligence so different from ours that it does not inhabit a body, but is a group of waves in the shape of a cloud, a super-organism similar to a black cloud, like the one in Fred Hoyle’s novel. Our cloud is not black, but rather the same colour blue as Internet links; instead of drifting through space, it remains still and, to communicate, it resorts to generating images in the brains of some likeable individuals on planets in other galaxies. One morning it woke up, if super-organisms even sleep or wake, in a good mood and decided to say hello to a scientist who lived in a place called Madrid and in that moment was walking near the Bernabéu Stadium at night.

The Luis Ruiz de Gopegui who is a writer is the author of other books about exploring space, Rumbo al Cosmos (Towards the Cosmos) and Hombres en el espacio: pasado, presente y futuro (Men in Space: Past, Present, and Future), and also two novels. In 82 Erídano, around the year 2050, a spaceship manned by extraterrestrials approaches Earth while humans debate what to do, how treat those guests who may be friends or invaders. In Regreso a la Luna (Return to the Moon), during the 21st century, humanity finally returns to the Moon with a stable base, and a series of discoveries and events take place, leading to a stimulating final surprise. In addition, in 1983 Luis Ruiz de Gopegui wrote a book quite different from his previous ones. The subject is not space, but the brain: it is titled Cibernética de lo humano (Human Cybernetics) and it studies the correlations between inanimate matter, life, and mind. This is the book Luis is most proud of, since at the time very few people dared to openly state not only that ‘man is, whether they want to admit it or not, a natural organism irremediably immersed in the physical world and necessarily subjected to all the laws of nature’, but also the consequences of ‘understanding that individual freedom is senseless, conceived as it is conceived today’. I have often argued with him about determinism, especially while I was studying Law, and since then I have been thinking about this example Luis gives in his book: ‘Man does not create his own actions, he discovers them, and this, naively, causes him to become their author. It is similar to travelling through unexplored places and actively participating in their discovery. The natural landscapes we find are unique and determined, and they could have never been any different, but to whom discovers them they are an imposing novelty, and that makes him think that they are his, and unconsciously intends to become the immaterial owner of those lands’. Most people, myself included, believe that we do not discover our life, but that we build it moment by moment, decision by decision. Perhaps this is true, and perhaps it can also not be entirely true. Luis would say that it is not so important. What matters is what we find along the way and if we are able to enjoy it, to admire what is beautiful and to repair, or at least try, what is broken. Both of these things are precisely what the six children do in Mars, the protagonists of the story you have read. As Vicente Ferrer, editor of this book, says: ‘It is the children’s brains which finally take them to Mars. The journey is possible because of their imagination, their enthusiasm, their ability to cooperate and work as a team. That things go well on this expedition and that it results in a happy ending, is largely an achievement of the children, since the difficulties they face are countless. Perhaps we are programmed to do everything these astronauts do, but, who stops to think about that?’.

Six Children on Mars is a story that could happen. The authors explains it like this: ‘A manned journey to Mars is still not possible. Great technical difficulties that have yet to be resolved, as well as the dangers of cosmic radiations and the deterioration of the organism by being subjected to weightlessness for long periods of time, are still present. However, no one doubts that in time these issues will be resolved and privileged men and women from Earth will visit this planet. Men and women who will be able to go to Mars in the future.. but what about children? Will they ever get to explore Mars alone as told in this book? Although we do not know if they will, Six Children on Mars shows us that sometimes even the most implausible things can happen, and that it is exciting to think about and enjoy.

Etymology states that the word ‘explore’ means ‘to cry’ (plorare in Latin) ‘out’ (ex-), as if to explore is to turn sadness into places, people, and things we pass through to discover what they contain. To explore means to search for the unknown, to examine places, countries, and planets where we have never been. The astronomer and scientific educator Carl Sagan explained that if the entire history of the universe were the size of a football field, on that scale the history of mankind would occupy a surface area equivalent to the palm of a hand. There, our lives, yours and mine, are so small they could seem invisible, but at the same time, they are as big as the ship in which we now travel, called Planet Earth. The ship must be explored, we must discover that it hoards a mansion that trembles like a mirage: approach it slowly, push the door ajar and sit down. If you listen attentively, you can hear the voice of the explorer Luis Ruiz de Gopegui encouraging you to begin the journey of a lifetime without fearing deep space, or faults, or surprises, because many are good and there will always be a place to land.


Photograph by Santiago Martí