Would you believe, they put a man on the moon?
Yes, despite all those conspiracy theories out there that argue otherwise, humankind has actually set foot on the moon, and the first time that happened was 50 years ago, on 16 July, 1969, to be exact.
Five decades ago on that day, the United States’ National Aeronautic and Space Association (Nasa) successfully launched the Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, with a three-man crew comprising commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr. Four days later, Armstrong made the first small step of a man on the moon, and in doing so, accomplished a giant leap for mankind.
To celebrate the momentous occasion, Omega recently assembled a galaxy of celebrities, former astronauts and watch connoisseurs at the Kennedy Space Centre to celebrate the lunar landing’s 50th anniversary.
The Omega’s Golden Moments event was held under a massive Saturn V rocket just like the one that launched Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin into legendary status, and headlined by Omega brand ambassador George Clooney.
Clooney was joined by two space-faring legends – Thomas Stafford, a veteran of four Nasa space missions and commander of Apollo 10; and Charles Duke, the capsule communicator for the crew of Apollo 11, who later became the 10th person to walk on the moon during 1972’s Apollo 16 mission.
Also present were Nasa luminaries like former astronauts Nicole Stott, Terry Virts and Jean-François Clervoy, and former Nasa engineer Jim Ragan.
To mark the golden anniversary of the moon landing, Omega also released a 42mm Speedmaster in 18K Moonshine gold – an exclusive new alloy which offers a paler hue than traditional yellow gold and higher resistance to fading over time.
The design is replete with lunar history as well as modern materials and a new movement: Omega’s Master Chronometer Calibre 3861– a manual-winding Omega Co-Axial escapement movement with Moonshine gold plated main plate and bridges, as well as burgundy markings.
What’s the connection between Nasa and Omega, you ask? Simple – Omega has the title of being the first ever watch on the moon, and also the honour of being the first watch to be certified “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” by Nasa.
But how do you decide what kind of watch can be brought to space and back? Any equipment that goes on Nasa’s missions would need to withstand a multitude of extreme conditions, one of which is the re-entry into Earth, which Duke describes as a “spectacular ride”, but one which could be fatal for the astronauts if even one tiny thing went wrong.
Explaining the fine margins that the astronauts faced during re-entry, Duke recalled having to approach the earth’s atmosphere at an angle of precisely four degrees, no more, no less.
“Too shallow and you would bounce off, and too sharp, you burn up at 3,000°F (around 1,650°C),” he explained during a series of talks by the NASA luminaries during the day.
Upon entry, the capsule becomes a “fireball at over seven and a half Gs”, so every single piece of equipment inside that craft has to be able to withstand that kind of extreme situation. Including the watches on the astronauts’ wrists.
In 1964, Nasa’s programme office put the call out for a watch that could do just that, and former Nasa senior aerospace engineer Jim Ragan was the person in charge of finding it.
“The very first job they gave me (when I joined Nasa) was, ‘We need a watch’,” recalls Ragan, who was with Nasa for 36 years before retiring in 1999. “And it quickly became clear that they didn’t want just any watch, but also a watch they could time with.”
So, Ragan put the word out to 10 different watch manufacturers for a wrist-worn chronograph, but only four of them sent over watches to be tested. However, one of the watches was immediately disqualified because it was a pocket watch, not a wrist watch.
The other three were put through 10 different tests, including humidity, corrosion, shock, vibration, acceleration, pressure, and extreme temperatures of between 93°C and -18°C.
According to Ragan, two watches failed the high temperature tests, but the Omega Speedmaster managed to withstand every single test that he could throw at it. “I was surprised that I could get any watches through those tests … It was the most extreme testing you could do to a piece of hardware,” he added.
On March 1, 1965, Nasa officially declared the Omega Speedmaster “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions”, and it has retained that status ever since.
The space-time connection
If you’re still not clear how important a good, reliable watch is in space, consider this – the Omega Speedmaster actually saved the lives of the astronauts of Apollo 13 in 1970. You know, the one that got made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, who says, “Houston, we have a problem”.
Meant to be the third moon landing, Apollo 13 went through a catastrophic chain of events 56 hours into the mission that crippled the lunar module’s life support and power systems, forcing the crew to devise a return to Earth by using the moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot them back.
There was one problem though – with their electrical systems down, they had to rely on the lunar module’s manually-controlled descent propulsion engine, and created 14-second mid-flight course corrections using astronaut Jim Swiggert’s Omega Speedmaster. That course of action eventually enabled them to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere safely, and that particular watch was etched into legend.
In a less stressful example of how a reliable watch is crucial in space, former astronaut Nicole Scott said her standard issue Omega X33 watch was the only thing that kept her on track throughout the day during her two space missions with the space shuttle Discovery and Endeavour, and also on the International Space Station.
“Flying in space, there’s this interesting idea of time in general. We’re traveling at 17,500 miles an hour (28163.52 km/h) and we’re going around the Earth every 90 minutes! We get 16 beautiful sunsets and sunrises every day,” she recalled. “Since we’re basically going through night and day 16 times a day, we have to work based on the time on our watches. My watch was the only thing that kept me to pace throughout the day.”
But back to the Moonwatch. A year later, after Nasa gave the Speedmaster its seal of approval, astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space, and he was wearing a Speedmaster on his wrist. In fact, the Speedmaster was on each of NASA’s manned missions, including those in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes.
By 1969, NASA had adopted the most recent versions of the Speedmaster, including the ST 105.012 and ST 145.012, the two models that were worn by the Apollo 11 astronauts during the mission.
Now, although Armstrong was the first man on the moon, Aldrin was the one who made the Omega Speedmaster the first watch on the moon, as Armstrong had left his watch in the lunar module.
So, at 03:15:16 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on July 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin became the second man on the moon while wearing his watch on his wrist. Thus, the Omega Speedmaster became the first watch worn on the moon, and the legend of the Moonwatch was born.
Since that fateful day, the watch has returned to the moon for all of the other lunar landings, including Apollo 12 (1969), Apollo 14 (1971), Apollo 15 (1971), Apollo 16 (1972) and Apollo 17 (1972). In total, only 12 men have ever walked on the moon and the Speedmaster has been there for every step. What was a giant leap for mankind, was also a moment that cemented a watch’s place in history.