John Peterson

John Peterson

Liberation Day celebrates the independence of Guam from Japanese conquest. What is less known is the day also marks the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk on July 21, 1969.

On the 22nd of July on this side of the international dateline, the Apollo 11 Manned Space Flight Center on Guam was poised to track the re-entry of Apollo 11 to earth.

Guam was one of the mission's intermediate switching centers that also included sites in Canberra, Madrid, London, Honolulu and the Kennedy Space Center, states a NASA press kit issued on July 6, 1969.

The Apollo 11 Manned Space Flight Center's radar on Guam was in Inarajan, near an area now known as Dandan. The facility was incorporated into the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite dedicated to space communications in the 1980s and '90s. The NASA Space Shuttles, Hubble Telescope, LANDSAT and the International Space Station utilized this communication and tracking system during this period. Following the advent of satellite systems, the center was transferred to the U.S. Navy and served as an intelligence station among other uses. Now it sits abandoned inside a chain-link fence. The original parabolic dish is gone, but a few buildings are still standing and the site is maintained by the Navy as part of its property portfolio.

The day of the returning capsule was dramatic. Not only did it mark a significant day in human history, but the preparation was tense. After weeks in the corrosive ocean breezes of southern Guam, the dish wouldn't move into position on its gears. The center manager tried in vain to lubricate the system but his arm was too thick. He recruited his 11-year-old son, who stuck a gob of grease on the gears and got it moving in time for the re-entry.

Looking at adaptive reuse

After 50 years the site is honored as part of the global NASA network including Mission Control in Houston and Cape Canaveral that are now parts of a National Historical Monument. The Apollo 11 Manned Space Flight Center in Guam may not be eligible for the monument status, but it can still commemorate this historic connection by adaptive reuse. The University of Guam hosts a NASA Space Grant Center that supports research in collaboration with NASA research centers in the mainland. This program, along with the highly successful University of Guam EPSCoR program, sponsors a robust STEM education program. The Apollo 11 center is proposed as a focus for STEM activities to include workforce training, drone activities, research and development, and possibly even rocket and cube-sat launching favored by its remote location and proximity to equatorial orbits.

The worldwide network of Challenger Learning Centers is discussing a facility for the Dandan site or another location in Guam, perhaps at the University of Guam. These educational centers promote simulated space missions for school groups and tourists in more than 40 locations worldwide. They were organized by the families of the Challenger Space Shuttle heroes who perished in the mission. A Challenger Education Center for Guam would be a fitting honor to them as well as a very significant teaching center for Guam youth, along with a source of revenue for the center as a tourist attraction.

We can celebrate this very special 50th anniversary by publicly honoring the site and setting into motion its adaptive reuse to educate the next generation of space travelers and scientists in Guam and Micronesia.

John A. Peterson is an affiliate faculty member for the Center for Island Sustainability at the University of Guam and former assistant vice president for UOG's Research and Graduate Studies. His other roles include affiliate faculty, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii at Manoa; and coordinator for Ocean and Earth Sciences, NASA EPSCoR Space Grant Center, University of Guam. He's also a research associate for the National Museum of the Philippines.

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