Meet James H. Ragan, NASA’s man behind the MoonWatch
Words: Rini Mukkath
In 1964, NASA began scouring the timepieces market for a chronograph to use for its manned space missions. The manned mission to the moon was the most
important project and was also touted by the then American administration as a foray into the future. This is when NASA called on the expertise of James H Ragan, who had worked in its aerospace engineering for 36 years, to test a chronograph suitable for astronauts in space. Ragan was responsible for the testing and preparation of flight hardware for the Apollo programme as well.
Ragan had to pick a chronograph that could be flight-
qualified and ready for use on space missions. Four brands were in the race: Longines (via Longines-Wittnauer USA), Omega, Rolex and Hamilton. Chronograph watches from these four brands were subjected to the same series of tests used for every piece of hardware intended for space. Only one survived the extreme temperatures, vibrations, hard shocks, and the vacuums of the testing process: the Omega Speedmaster. NASA then declared the watch ‘operational for space
exploration and flight certified’.
Thus when Ed White became the first American in space in June 1965, he would wear an Omega Speedmaster on his wrist. It would be five more years before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon on July 21, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
In this interview Ragan recalls the chronograph tests,
reflects on life at NASA in the 1960sand 1970s, and on the future of space exploration.
You played a key role in the approval of the OMEGA Speedmaster for NASA’s manned space flights. Could you comment on NASA’s long relationship with OMEGA?
It started as a business relationship. OMEGA was acting essentially as a contractor to NASA. NASA procured the chronographs directly from OMEGA and performed all the qualification testing and work required to ensure that they were safe and would fulfil the astronauts’
requirements. The long-term relationship that developed over the years turned out to be fantastic. OMEGA was an ideal partner in the quest for space. It was always ready to perform testing, provide maintenance on the astronaut chronographs and suggest improvements. OMEGA strived to provide NASA with the best chronographs and insured that NASA got the most reliable and safe chronographs possible. They also
developed chronographs for commercial sales, which
incorporated all the requirements NASA had for its
chronographs. In terms of longevity, I believe that OMEGA has been the longest-serving single provider of hardware to NASA.
Were any changes in the Speedmaster (related either to
comfort or engineering requirements) mandated by NASA?
No, NASA never mandated any changes. However, the first chronographs that NASA bought were model 6049 (USA
designation). These were to be used for the Gemini
programme. During crew usage for training and flight, I found that it was very easy to bend or break the chronograph
function buttons on the side. The case did not provide any
protection for them. I asked OMEGA to consider
redesigning the case to provide a little recess to better protect these buttons. This configuration became the new version of the chronograph. It has the exact same movement – just a
different case. This model was designated 6126 (USA
designation). The model 6049 was used throughout Gemini and I started using the model 6126 model for Apollo and beyond.
The OMEGA Speedmaster X-33 was created so that it could be handled by astronauts wearing their bulky gloves. Was it also possible to manipulate the Speedmaster Professional with gloves?
Yes, the crew was able to push the buttons but it was not easy. For EVA (suited) operations, the crew usually started their chronograph when they were ready to go out and let them run without using the buttons again until they returned.
NASA has announced its long-term intention to send a manned mission to Mars. When the first NASA astronaut sets foot on the Martian surface, will he or she be wearing a Speedmaster? Will it have to be adapted to the planet’s climate extremes?
Yes, I believe there will always be a requirement for a personal chronograph on all future manned missions. I also believe that, when the first astronaut sets foot on the Martian soil, the chronograph that will be worn will be an OMEGA.
Additional thermal protection may be required. Extensive testing will be required to verify how much protection will have to be provided.
Do you think that we will ever experience another era whose enthusiasm for space exploration will match that of the 1960s and 1970s?
Yes, I believe we will see and experience another enthusiastic space exploration that will match and probably exceed the 1960s and 1970s. Human beings are the only explorers on our planet. History has shown that it is mankind’s destiny to
explore new places and open new frontiers. We continue to have that desire. It has to be a goal that has never been achieved before. It is paramount that it literally be beyond our current terrestrial experience.
There was a sort of “we-can-achieve-anything” mentality in those days, particularly in scientific, medical, and
technological areas. Are we too jaded and cynical now to return to that mindset?
The world has changed since the 1960s and 1970s but the desire to achieve has not. I think that the “we-can-achieve-anything” mentality is still alive and well. If a new national or international priority goal is set, the best of the best will again assemble to achieve this goal. It is past time we returned to this mindset.
The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years must have been particularly intense times for those working at NASA. How would you switch off your engineer/system manager brain and
re-enter “the real world”?
Most of the people who worked for NASA in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years were totally consumed with the safety of the astronauts and to providing them with the best possible vehicle and equipment to achieve our national goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth within the 1960s. It was basically a 24/7/365 job.
As an engineer, it was almost impossible to switch off NASA and your projects. Failure was not an option; therefore, it was necessary to leave nothing to chance. I took very little leave and was away from home more than 50 per cent of the time. Often, at the Kennedy Space Center, it was necessary to work many long hours to meet the scheduled launch dates. Only
after the start of the Shuttle programme did it become
possible to re-enter the real world.
What do you miss most about working at NASA?
I miss the camaraderie of being part of a highly skilled team of individuals working toward a common goal. Being part of the team that provided hardware and support for a journey that had never been made before has no equal that I have found.
Could you share a couple of the highlights of your long
As you can imagine, there were many, but I’ll name three:
Playing a part of this new history-making frontier was one of the highlights of my career. It was truly a unique experience that only a few were afforded the opportunity to experience.
Providing hardware to and having a part of man’s first lunar landing and then five additional successful landings and safe returns of the crew.
Working as System Manager for Crew Accommodations for the Shuttle program was also particularly gratifying.