There’s something inexplicably magical about man’s trips to the moon. That magic is why we’re still talking about it, exactly 50 years after the fact. Perhaps it’s because of how impossible the feat seems, even today, after all of mankind’s technological advancements post-1969. Perhaps it’s because man no longer goes to the moon, despite those advancements. That longing and nostalgia, coupled with the incredulity—plus just a hint of moondust—could perhaps begin to explain how moonstruck we have all been in recent weeks.
Whatever the reason, our fascination with everything moon-related remains—it’s probably why you’re even reading this right now. It’s also part of the reason why we are still so fascinated with the precision-microengineering of the famous Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch”—a.k.a. the watch that made it to the moon.
For those unfamiliar with the legend, here is a quick primer: The Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch was the only watch to make it through NASA’s stringent equipment testing, beating out Longines and (somewhat shockingly) Rolex as contenders. It remains, to this day, the only watch that is certified for EVA (extravehicular activity; also known as a spacewalk).
That means that if we are ever going back to the moon, or if an astronaut were to go out of the International Space Station (ISS) on a spacewalk, the Moonwatch is still the only timepiece that is certified to do it.
The stringent testing was important since the watch was put through its paces during both training and actual Apollo missions. During the Apollo 11 trip to the moon, Neil Armstrong needed to leave his 105.012 Speedmaster on the lunar module as a backup timekeeper, as the module’s own clock had malfunctioned. Later on, during the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, astronaut Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster was used to time the critical 14-second engine burn using the lunar module’s descent propulsion system, allowing for the crew’s safe return.
So what, then, of the testing process? And has the Moonwatch changed since the tests were done? Why has more advanced technology not made a mechanical watch like this redundant? Are we ever going to make it to Mars?
We sat down for a chat with James Ragan, the former NASA engineer who was responsible for all of the Apollo flight hardware testing, to talk about all of this and more.
The chronograph candidates for the Apollo missions were all off-the-shelf watches. What was plan B, should none of them have passed?
We didn’t have a plan B.
We knew that the Omegas were probably gonna make it already because at least two of the astronauts went out and bought the watches themselves. Some people will tell you three, but I can only verify two. Deke Slayton [NASA’s first chief of the astronaut office, director of flight crew operations, and Ragan’s boss] was one of them. Nobody knows that, but that is a true statement. And the other one is true, [Walter Schirra], but I don’t believe Gordo Cooper ever bought one—I think he borrowed Deke’s to fly.
At first, I had no idea Deke wanted to do watches. And so when I first got to NASA, he called me up and he said we needed a wrist-worn watch.
Then I interviewed some of the astronauts and see what they really want to do with the watch. This was right at the beginning of the Gemini days. They basically wanted to do several things—mostly to time events. And they hadn’t thought far enough yet with what they were going to do with it on the moon. But they certainly wanted it to go EVA, so that that put a really stringent requirement on the watches, to pass a plus or minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit [93 deg Celcius], which is most difficult for a watch.
And I thought—I’m never gonna find that watch.
And so, for a typical government agency in the United States, I had to write a specification for the equipment, and call for bids. I got four proposals back, even though I had sent it to 15 companies or 20 companies, some of which you’ve probably never even heard of.
Hamilton submitted one that you would mount on a ship out in the ocean [laughter]. I mean it was a chronograph, but it was big, and I specified a wrist-worn watch. So of course, that one was eliminated. And I was down to Longines, Omega, and Rolex.
And I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t know much about Omega at the time, but I figured the Rolex was gonna make it.
Then it failed the first test.
What was the test?
Thermal vacuum, the hardest thing you could put the watch through. Longines failed it, and Rolex failed it. So now I’m stuck with one watch. If this Omega doesn’t make it…
But it made it through that test. The requirement that I had is that it could lose time or gain time, but you had to be able to then reset it back to normal time. Omega made it through every test.
And then I went back to the astronauts. I had given the different watches to the astronauts that were going to fly the first two or three missions. I said—you guys evaluate them and tell me which one you like the best. I’m not telling you which passes the tests and I don’t want you to tell me which one you like until I get through testing them.
And when I went back, by far, they liked the Omega best. I said—that’s great because you like what I can qualify!
Given that technology has progressed so much over the last couple of decades, if you had to certify a watch today, would the requirements be any different?
Not for EVA. EVA has not changed. This [indicating the watch he is wearing], this is the watch they fly [on the International Space Station [ISS], the Omega Speedmaster X-33 Skywalker. But it cannot go EVA. Do you want to know why?
The quartz crystal?
No, that doesn’t make any difference. It’s gotta pass plus or minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. And after that either the battery is dead and you can’t read the display, or the hands don’t work. Plus, that liquid crystal flows so fast that you can’t see it. And so to this day, it’s the same thing.
So the only watch that is certified to go EVA is still the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch, and it’s riding off of the certification that I did back in the 1960s. They’re still using it!
So even with all the multiple redundancies, the astronauts today still trust and watch more than they do—
Outside on EVA they do.
Now, it’s not as critical anymore, because if they’re doing it just on the ISS, they’ve still got guys inside. But it’s still important. If they lose communication, they got the same problem. And it also gives them an idea of how much time has elapsed so they can keep track of time. But it’s just as important to them today as it was back then.
There has been some renewed interest in space in recent years. What do you think the future of spacefaring looks like?
I think we’re going to continue. But I was part of a group that did a study of what it would take to get to Mars. And it’s basically logistically impossible for us to get there. Because it could take about 60 to 65 days—you can’t carry enough fuel, oxygen, clothes, food, you can’t carry enough of any of it. And you can’t put them in suspended animation like you see in the movies, that isn’t going to happen. So it’s impossible.
At the time, we recommended building a station on the moon instead.
But I also think that man is an explorer by nature, and we’re going to continue to explore. That’s our destiny, as far as I’m concerned.
So at current technology levels, we won’t be terraforming Mars anytime soon.
No, not in my opinion. You’re not gonna see US go to Mars, in my lifetime for sure, and probably not in yours. They’ve got too much to do.