Interpreting for the Astronauts: A Conversation with Fernando van Reigersberg

Between 1960 and 1973, the U.S. spent $28 billion to put men on the moon. And as is so often the case, scattered throughout this herculean effort were translators and interpreters quietly doing their jobs. This is one of their stories.

July 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Neil Armstrong’s first step on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, was the culmination of one of the largest and most expensive peacetime undertakings by any government in human history. Between 1960 and 1973, the U.S. spent $28 billion ($288 billion in today’s dollars) to put men on the moon.1 And as is so often the case, scattered throughout this herculean effort were translators and interpreters quietly doing their jobs. However, few records exist of their contributions to the space program.

In October 1966, a little less than three years before the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle would take Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon’s surface, Armstrong set off with fellow astronaut Richard Gordon on the Gemini2 Goodwill Tour of South America, visiting 11 major South American cities in less than two weeks. A young interpreter for the U.S. Department of State, Fernando van Reigersberg, was assigned to travel with them as their personal interpreter. Just a few days after the anniversary of the lunar landing, I sat down with Fernando to learn about this important moment of the space race and what it was like traveling and interpreting for the man who would eventually become the first person to walk on the moon.

Barry S. Olsen: Fernando, you’ve been an interpreter for over 60 years. How did you get started?

Fernando van Reigersberg: I lived with my mother and brother in Tangier, Morocco, for most of my teen years. My parents divorced and there wasn’t much of a future for me in that place, so we decided I should apply to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. I was accepted, so we moved to Washington, DC, after I graduated high school in 1954. In the middle of the second semester of my freshman year, my mother told my brother and I that she had run out of money. Our father had distanced himself, both personally and financially, and she had no idea how I would continue my studies at Georgetown.

I knew I needed to get a summer job if I hoped to stay in school. I ended up at the Georgetown employment offices and was interviewed at great length by a very knowledgeable person. At some point during the interview, this person told me, “You seem to have the necessary skills to become an interpreter.” And I asked, “What is an interpreter?” It was then that I found out that the U.S. government had a program where groups or individuals would come on tours of the U.S., many of which lasted as long as 90 days. That would fit nicely into my summer, I thought. I would have to take a test at the State Department, and if I passed I would be placed on the list of escort interpreters. We were called escort interpreters at that time because we were not expected to be seasoned interpreters yet, but rather people who could manage to interpret from one language to another for visitors and travel with them.

B: Was that the beginning of the International Visitors Program that actually continues to this day?

F: Yes. It began during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Back then it was called the Foreign Operations Administration (a precursor to the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID), and the administration was bringing in mainly European visitors as part of the Marshall Plan.3 The program was so successful that they soon included Latin Americans and others as well.

I took the State Department test in March or April of 1955 and passed. So, as my freshman year ended, I was told to come in for training, which consisted of two hours of consecutive training in the morning and two hours of simultaneous in the afternoon for two weeks. I was given a 90-day assignment immediately following training. Back then, we were paid $50 a day, so I made $4,500 in 90 days. Tuition at Georgetown was only $300, so the assignment helped me finish my education.

During my senior year, when all my classmates were being interviewed for jobs by various private-sector companies, I got a call from the State Department. They said, “You’ve been doing very well. People are very happy with your work. Why don’t you come and work for us on a permanent basis?” And I said, “Sure!” It took some time for my security clearance to come through, so I did some freelance interpreting in the interim. My first conference interpreting job was with Italia Morayta, Mexico’s first professional simultaneous interpreter, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. One of the speakers was John Foster Dulles, who was U.S. Secretary of State at the time. I was about 20 years old, so you could say my career started off with a big bang.

B: So, you began working as a staff interpreter for the State Department in your early 20s. When was that?

F: My clearance came through and I was sworn in as a staff member of the State Department on December 8, 1958, the same year I graduated from Georgetown. My very first presidential interpreting assignment was in 1959 at age 22, between President Eisenhower and Eduardo Victor Haedo, vice president of the National Council of Government of Uruguay.

Fernando van Reigersberg (right) interprets for Neil Armstrong (center) at a press conference in Colombia.

B: A presidential interpreter at age 22. Not many people can say that! But let’s fast forward to the space race. What was it like in the 1960s, witnessing President John F. Kennedy’s decision to commit the U.S. to go to the moon and then seeing the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions carried out? How did the State Department become involved in these Goodwill Tours with the astronauts, and how did you end up being assigned to the Gemini Goodwill Tour in 1966?

F: It all started with a lot of confusion. I don’t think anybody expected the Russians to get ahead, or that Yuri Gagarin would be the first guy to circle the earth. The people in the White House were just trying to figure out what to do. So, gradually, NASA got involved, but the State Department didn’t really have much to do with it.

That changed when they began to plan the Gemini Goodwill Tour. There was still no open talk of trips to the moon yet. It was all about flights around the earth, space walks, and docking a spacecraft. At the same time, there was a feeling at the State Department that with all the engagement with Russia and with the Marshall Plan in Europe, that Latin America, once again, was being neglected by U.S. foreign policy. President Lyndon Johnson felt that it was important to do something in Latin America and that having some contact would bring people out. USAID also wanted more publicity to show that the U.S. was interested in Latin America. There were a lot of staff meetings where they discussed what could be done to make an impression. That’s when it was decided to send some astronauts and let them travel around and show off U.S. technology at its best. So, the Gemini Goodwill Tour was scheduled.

The White House had promised us that we could use President Johnson’s plane, a Boeing 707, for the tour. But just a week before we were scheduled to leave, President Johnson decided to go to the Philippines. And when the president flies on Air Force One, there has to be an identical plane available as a backup in case there’s a technical problem. So, we ended up making the trip to Latin America in a Convair jet prop, which is much slower. We had around 18 people on that trip, so the plane was pretty crowded.

The original idea was to visit every country in South America. The itinerary might vary, but these visits usually included Neil Armstrong and Richard Gordon having their photos taken with each country’s president. (There were a lot of photographers at these visits because the astronauts were a big deal.) Then some other officials might present the president with a flag of that country that had been flown in space on a previous Gemini mission, or they would offer to take a flag from that country so it could be flown during subsequent Gemini missions.

After meeting with each president, there was always a press conference, then there would be a luncheon at which other officials would appear, such as people from the national space studies or space development ministries or foreign ministry. And then we would go back to the airport and fly to the next country. We first went to Bogota. From Bogota, we went to Brazil, where somebody else interpreted in Rio and Sao Paulo. From there, I stepped in again as interpreter, and we flew to Quito. And from Quito to Lima, from Lima to La Paz, and from La Paz to Santa Cruz. We made two stops in Bolivia. From there, we went to Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago. On the way back to Andrews Air Force Base, we stopped for refueling in Panama. While we were there, we also had a short visit with the president of Panama for about 90 minutes. So, that was the itinerary. We visited 11 South American cities in less than two weeks.

B: What were the press conferences like?

F: The press conferences were basically the highlight. USAID had publicized them, so there were a lot of press people, invited guests, and so on. All the press conferences were kind of copies one of the other. As a result, so were the answers. The press asked the usual questions like, “Were you ever afraid?” and Neil Armstrong always answered by saying, “No, they kept us much too busy. If you don’t want to be afraid, stay busy and you don’t have time to be afraid.”

The press always asked the astronauts what they ate and what this dried-up stuff called astronaut food was like. They also asked about bathrooms on the space vehicles and things about health. Finally, they would always ask what the benefits of the Gemini missions were. Neil and Richard would highlight two. First, they would say, “We hope to go to the moon sometime in the future.” And second, they would say, “Velcro. It’s a new thing that’s been invented that we have on all of our uniforms and everything else to keep things together. We don’t know where the name comes from, but that’s what we use.” Back then, Velcro was viewed as one of the big technological discoveries.

Astronaut Richard Gordon (center) shows the helmet of his space suit while Fernando van Reigersberg (left) interprets during a press conference in Chile.

B: What was it like working with the astronauts? I mean, were they very personable and interested, or did they feel the tour was a distraction from the “real” work that they were doing?

F: Both. They loved the trip. They loved the adulation and the coverage, but they were always very professional. NASA briefed them on what to say and what not to say, and they handled themselves very well. They were very intelligent, articulate, and personable. You know, engineers are basically uncomplicated people. I would take an engineer over a politician or a lawyer anytime. They were direct. They were straight. And they had no ego. They also had their wives along as well. Janet Armstrong was a delightful lady, and so was Mrs. Gordon.

B: What was the reception like in the countries throughout South America?

F: Excellent. The tour was totally noncontroversial, which is what the U.S. government wanted it to be. These were people who were popular. The astronauts had already been widely talked about in the media, and not just Neil and Richard. Space exploration in general was in the news all the time. USAID was a very active agency, so the tour was very well publicized. And you really couldn’t be against them. I mean, even the anti-Americans had to admire the space effort. And the trip showed that the U.S. was interested in Latin America.

B: Did Neil Armstrong or Richard Gordon speak any Spanish at all?

F: Not a word. And it was very funny because when we stopped in Santiago, they were to meet with an aspiring Chilean astronaut whose name I don’t recall, but it was totally Anglo-Saxon, something like John Smith, but he was Chilean. So, I thought they wouldn’t need me because they could just speak English, but I was still close by. And when they met, he didn’t speak a word of English, so I had to step in.

B: What were some of the challenges you faced throughout the assignment?

F: Stamina. By the time we had been to our fifth country, we were all getting very little sleep. You would arrive at an airport and immediately take a motorcade into the city. Then there were all the events you had to attend. You had a little time at the hotel to rest, or you would try to sleep on the plane. The tour was just very, very long. Everybody was happy when we finished in Santiago and headed home. During our flight back, Richard Gordon said he wanted to fly the plane. So, between Santiago and Panama, the U.S. Air Force allowed him to take control. Everyone else just slept. It was exhausting. Although normally interpreters work in a team of two, I was the only interpreter. I had no backup. I had to do every event.

B: How would you best describe the tour?
F: I don’t normally use the word triumphant, but it was. The tour was about the U.S. showing its best side—a clear technological superiority that it was willing to share with other people. A country with no apparent divisions. I mean, it was showing a very good face of the U.S., and that made me very proud. It was unifying for us and for the world. There was something hypnotic about the tour, even for people who were not scientifically minded. What the astronauts were doing made everyone very excited, and that excitement transcended them and affected us. The astronauts responded to that excitement, and so did everybody on the trip. After each country visit, we would get back on the plane and have a staff meeting while we were flying, and everybody was so happy about how things had gone.

B: Did you ever have one of those moments while you were interpreting where you would take a few steps back and say, this is history in the making?

F: I didn’t. I was too young. I can do that now, but I couldn’t when I was in my 20s. I think it’s an age thing, or at least it was for me. Perhaps I should add a little footnote here. About six months after the tour was over, Neil Armstrong came to Washington on some sort of official business. We found out and invited him for dinner. He and several other people from the tour came to McLean, Virginia, and had dinner at my house.

B: Wow! That sure gives you an idea of how personable folks were. When you see things on television, you’re so distant from everything, so I think it’s easy to forget that the protagonists of these great events were human. Any parting thoughts?

F: Interpreting is the only thing I’ve ever done. I started at age 18, and I’m now 82. I’ve done it all. I think interpreting is the most wonderful profession I could have chosen, and I’m grateful every day for the ability to do this. Interpreters are more than interpreters. We’re bridges. We help connect people.

B: Thank you, Fernando, for sharing this part of your amazing career. It’s been an honor speaking with you.

Notes
  1. “How Much Did the Apollo Program Cost?” http://bit.ly/Apollo-cost.
  2. The Gemini Program (1965–66) was an early NASA human space flight program and an essential precursor to the Apollo Program. Read more about the Gemini Program at http://bit.ly/Gemini-Program.
  3. The Marshall Plan was a comprehensive plan to rebuild the European economy after World War II. For more information, see http://bit.ly/Marshall-Plan.

Barry Slaughter Olsen is a veteran conference interpreter and technophile with over 25 years of experience interpreting, training interpreters, and organizing language services. He is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and founder and co-president of InterpretAmerica. He has spent the last decade advising interpreters and technology startups alike on how to find a niche in the complex world of multilingual communications. Contact: bsolsen@miis.edu.

The ATA Chronicle © 2019 All rights reserved.