Spain has been on the side of the United States since the beginning of the space competition in the mid-1950s. Our country played an essential role in the Apollo programme, which managed to take American astronauts to the surface of the Moon on six occasions and successfully return them to Earth between July 1969 and December 1972.
And if Spain's contribution was key half a century ago in demonstrating Washington's technological superiority over Moscow, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has once again turned its attention to Spain to play a similar role in the new challenge it faces.
It has not been officially declared, but the space race between the United States and China is a reality. The main battlefield is once again the Moon, the star on whose surface both countries want to be the first to land their astronauts during the current decade, after nearly 50 years without human presence.
The reason that has led the American Agency's management to opt for Spain once again is the strategic geographical position occupied by the important long-range communications complex that NASA has in Robledo de Chavela, some 60 kilometres west of Madrid.
A large satellite dish has just been inaugurated and is already in service there, adding to the four already in full operation. All five are dedicated to maintaining a permanent link with the growing number of robotic missions exploring the Solar System, with the aim of monitoring and tracking them across the cosmos.
But not only that. The ultimate reason for the installation and immediate activation of a fourth large antenna in Robledo de Chavela is to anticipate the future. NASA wants to have the essential terrestrial infrastructures ready to ensure the smooth running of the manned missions of its Artemis programme, which will return American astronauts to the Moon, together with Europeans and Japanese, from the middle of this decade. And later they will jump to Mars, which will happen in the late 1930s at the earliest.
The new antenna is coded DSS-56, measures 34 metres in diameter and will technically transmit and receive signals in the S- and X-bands and receive huge amounts of data in the K- and Ka-bands. It is similar to another one still under construction called DSS-53, which is scheduled to enter service "by the end of this year", according to NASA sources.
Located in a facility of the National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA) of the Ministry of Defence, the two have been built in the framework of the Scientific Cooperation Agreement signed in January 2003 between the governments of Madrid and Washington. They are part of a programme to extend and improve the data link, relay and reception capabilities of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN).
The DSN is made up of three centres located around the world, which control around twenty space missions, both from the United States and other countries, such as Japan, the United Arab Emirates - the Al Amal Mars-bound probe - India and the European Space Agency.
The Robledo de Chavela tracking station is officially called the Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex and is known within NASA by its acronym MDSCC. Together with another similar facility located in Goldstone -in the Californian Mojave Desert- and another one near Canberra (Australia), its management is entrusted to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena (California), one of NASA's main collaborating institutions.
With five antennas already in operation in Robledo de Chavela - four 34-metre antennas and one 70-metre antenna - the Spanish communications complex has become NASA's most important. And when the one now being finalised is activated at the end of this year, Madrid's potential will be 50 percent greater than that of Goldstone and Canberra, each with four antennas, three 34-metre and one 70-metre.
With the three centres located in well-chosen geographical regions, the long range and wide field of view of the dishes means that at least one of the three stations can make contact with a spacecraft when it is more than 30,000 kilometres from Earth, less than 10 times the average distance between the Earth and the Moon.
In addition, from any of the three centres, the antennas of the other two stations can be remotely controlled and oriented. In this way, the Madrid technicians control the Goldstone and Canberra antennas during Spanish school hours.
Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator appointed by Donald Trump, left office on 20 January with a plea to new President Joe Biden to maintain the Artemis programme to return astronauts to the moon. For the time being, Steve Jurczyk, a senior NASA official, is acting head of the agency and is continuing with the plans in place.
Until a new director takes over NASA, all of Steve Jurczyk's actions will continue with an eye on the inaugural Artemis I mission. This is the first uncrewed flight test of the new Orion space capsule, whose mission is to orbit the moon to demonstrate the validity of new technologies, including the newly designed Space Launch System and the new liftoff systems that have been installed at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
With no date yet for the liftoff of Artemis I, the possibility of a first astronaut mission in 2024 is virtually impossible, unless the programme is accelerated with a significant budget increase.