In the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, a former Nasa engineer shares how an Omega timepiece came to be synonymous with space flight.

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In a fine-watch world awash with tales of heritage, the Omega Speedmaster Professional has a truly unique claim to fame: It is the only watch qualified by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) for use in space. But back in 1965, the Swiss brand’s executives did not even know that their watches were being tested for space flight when they first sent their watches to Nasa, in response to a tender issued by the agency.

The man who set out the watch specifications and later procured Nasa’s timepieces was James H. Ragan, a former Nasa project engineer. He was in town in July to attend a #SpeedyTuesday event; the hashtag was created in 2012 by Robert-Jan Broer, founder of watch website Fratello Watches. The chatty 77-year-old recalls: “I didn’t say why I wanted a watch. The brands I shortlisted had no idea what I was going to do with them – Nasa could have put them on a car.” Below, he shares personal stories of the Speedmaster (or Speedy, as it is affectionately known), one of the true horological icons of our time.

How the Speedmaster became the Moonwatch

Of the 10 brands that he shortlisted, only four came back with a watch. One was disqualified as it was a large onboard instrument, rather than a wristwatch as requested. Of the remaining three, recalls Ragan, the Omega was the only one that made it through the first test – a thermo-vacuum test subjecting the watches to a vacuum and extreme temperatures of plus/minus 250 deg F (121 deg C). In the end, it passed all the tests, including ones for resistance and vibrations.

On not buying a Speedy while working at Nasa “As a government employee, you had to be very careful. You could get fired if they thought you hadn’t paid for the watch on your own. I could have bought one, but I thought about how that might look. And I thought, ‘Nah.’ But I have about 20 now.” (Smiles.)

Why his favourite model isn’t Nasa’s

When we met, Ragan was wearing the Speedmaster X-33 Skywalker, a digital quartz watch allowed only for onboard use, and not outside a spacecraft for EVA (extravehicular activity). Explaining why only the mechanical Speedmaster is certified for EVA, he explains: “At extreme temperatures, the digital display can’t be read. If it’s 250 deg F, the liquid crystals move so fast you can’t see them. And if it goes down to minus 250 degrees, they freeze, and the battery goes.” With a smile, he adds: “I like the X-33 – because I don’t do plus/minus 250 degrees either.”

The 14 seconds that showed why you need reliable mechanical watches in space

The most gripping tale about the Speedmaster is probably how it helped to save the lives of the astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission, after an oxygen tank in its service module exploded, two days into the mission. “The astronauts had to do an exact 14-second burn of fuel,” says Ragan, in order to execute a manoeuvre that would let them manually guide the lunar module back to earth. With power shut down to conserve energy and the onboard clock not working, they timed the 14-second burn using an Omega chronograph. “It’s amazing to me. Had we not had it up there, they might not have got back.” 

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The new Speedmaster Moon Watch 321 Platinum houses the movement used in the original Speedmasters tested by Nasa.