When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, they — and the world that was watching — heard one man’s voice radioed in through the blackness of space. That man was Charles Duke.
The retired brigadier-general, at the time in his early 30s, sat in his chair at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, communicating with the American astronauts as they prepared to make history.
“To have the opportunity to participate in that historic program was just an incredible experience and privilege,” he summarized of the historic moment, as well as his continuing participation in the larger Apollo initiative.
Speaking during an event at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Fla., in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Duke detailed in conversation, as well as during a short film titled The Longest Minute in which he appeared alongside George Clooney, how the moon mission wasn’t without its turbulent moments.
“During the descent, we had a lot of issues. We started having data dropout. And then we started having computer overloads,” he said in the film. “When I saw that on my console as CAPCOM, I said, ‘We’re dead in the water. We’re losing the computer — we’re not going to be able to finish.’ ”
First, he recalls, it was a trajectory problem, as Armstrong struggled to navigate the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle through a boulder field on the surface of the moon. Then, it became a fuel problem. It took a lot more fuel to slow down and then level and then descend, he recalled.
“We began to get really, really concerned about the fuel,” he said.
The mission-control team issued the call for 60 seconds, notifying the astronauts the clock was running down to 60 seconds to land the module. Duke made the call and the astronauts affirmed they’d received it.
“Thirty seconds later, I called, ‘Eagle, 30 seconds,’ ” he recalls. “And they were close to landing, but were not on the ground yet. According to my watch, about 13 seconds later, they landed.”
The tension at mission control, he recalls, was “through the roof” as people remained glued to their consoles and TV screens. The fear, he says, was that the four-per-cent margin of fuel, which remained in the event of an abort call and would be essential to ensuring the astronauts could throttle up and lift off from the surface of the moon, was running out.
“Had we got to that point, I’m convinced Neil Armstrong would have said, ‘Say it again?’ and he would have landed,” he says with a smile. After another tense few seconds they received four words from the surface of the moon:
“The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong radioed in.
The recounting of the final moments before the Apollo 11 team landed on the moon was a reminder that, when it comes to space, timing is everything. When the balance between survival and death is so precarious, every second counts.
“We wore the Omega Speedmaster. Everyone was issued one,” Duke recalls. The NASA-issue timepieces each had a Velcro band in lieu of a leather wrist strap or metal bracelet, to allow it to fit over the spacesuit.
“We used it a lot,” Duke says, referencing his turn on the moon as a member of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 (at age 36, Duke became the youngest man to walk on the moon). “It kept us on time on the lunar surface.” While collectors and NASA aficionados are well aware that the Omega Speedmaster has been the selected timepiece since that Apollo 11 mission, the origin story of how that selection was settled upon is slightly less-known.
Jim Ragan, a former NASA engineer was the man behind choosing the watch that would come to be known as the “Moonwatch.” Initially, he explains, the space agency didn’t provide crews with watches, instead offering them timekeeping capabilities through digital-timers and larger clocks. As the engineer in charge of flight-crew equipment, he soon found out, these weren’t the preferred timepieces of the astronauts, after all.
“There was at least two that I know of, maybe a third, who went to buy some watches because they didn’t like the digital timer they had up there,” he recalls. “Wally was one of them, Deke Slayton was one of them and I’m not talking about the other one yet, I’m still researching on that one. They bought them themselves, flew them themselves, they were private property and did not belong to the government at that time.”
Increasingly aware that the space crews were in need of personal watches, in the early 1960s he set about finding a timepiece that could handle the stresses of space flight — and still keep precise time.
“When I asked the crew what do you really want to do up there, it became clear that they needed a chronograph because they also wanted to do timing,” he said. With that knowledge Ragan put out a call to several watch manufactures asking them to submit a bid for one of their watches to be worn in space.
Three brands came back as viable options after preliminary testing: Longines, Rolex and Omega. (A fourth brand was considered but submitted a style that “you would have mounted on a battleship and I specified a ‘wrist-worn’ watch, so that one got thrown out immediately,” Ragan recalls with a laugh).
In order to get a watch certified by NASA for space travel Ragan had to put the watches through their paces, inside and outside. Each brand submitted five watches for the testing portion of the bid, Ragan recalls. The watches were ones that “anybody could buy,” according to Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO and president of Omega. Each watch went through 10 different “environments” meant to simulate the different pressures and shocks one could encounter in space.
“Some of them were totally unrealistic,” Ragan recalls with a laugh. “Plus-or-minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s tough on a watch. Thermal vacuum was tough on a watch.
“The real separators were vibration and thermal vacuum. That made the difference between who got in and who got out. We started the testing and both Longines and Rolex failed in the first test — and they were out — so all I had was Omega.”
While doing his own rigorous testing Ragan gave the astronauts the other watches in order for them to provide feedback for the final results.
“(I) said, ‘I want you to evaluate them. Tell me which one you like the best and I don’t want to know until I’m through testing,’ ” he says. “The Omega was the only watch that made it through all the testing and when that happened, before I announced who made it, I went back to the astronauts and said, ‘Which one of these do you like?’ And, thank goodness, they liked the Omegas the best as well, so that made it real easy for me to go out and buy the watches.”
Ragan’s recounting of the Omega appointment revealed an interesting fact about the astronaut’s watches: they had to give them back.
“Every piece on the NASA program had a serial number … it was government property and had to be turned back in,” he says. “The Smithsonian Institution in Washington was the beneficiary of those. I think they have about 70 of those. They have every watch that was on the moon — except Buzz Aldrin’s.” (That watch was reportedly lost while en route to the Smithsonian in 1970.)
Ragan says he never received any negative feedback from the astronauts on the chosen watches during his time at NASA, pausing to recount how, if it weren’t for the watches, the Apollo initiative’s history would never have been the same.
“The most famous time was Apollo 13,” he recalls. “When the spacecraft is dead like it was, they had no way of timing the burn had they not had the Omega watch.”
Ragan says that, without the mechanical watch, they would have been unable to precisely time the 14-second burn required to correct their trajectory for re-entry to Earth — and keep them live.
“If they did it wrong they would either come in too deep and burn up or they would skip out into the atmosphere and never come back again,” Ragan says. “They used the commander’s watch, because I asked him. And he said, yes, he relied on it.
“He got it, exactly 14 seconds. And they got home. Safe.”
Postmedia News was a guest of Omega in Florida. The brand neither reviewed nor approved this article.
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