James H. Ragan worked in aerospace engineering for NASA for 36 years before he retired in 1999. He was the man responsible for testing the chronographs used by astronauts on NASA’s manned missions in the Sixties. Ragan was responsible for the testing and preparation of flight hardware for the Apollo program.
In 1964 NASA began scouring the market for a chronograph to use on its manned space missions. This turned out to be one of Ragan’s first big assignment at NASA, to pick a chronograph that could be flight-qualified and ready for use on space missions. Four brands were in the fray: Longines (via Longines-Wittnauer USA), Omega, Rolex and Hamilton. Chronograph watches from these four brands were subject to the same series of tests that were used for every piece of hardware that was intended for space.
Of the four, Ragan ruled one out right in the beginning because he didn’t think the wristwatch was sturdy enough. In the end, three watches from three different brands were subject to a battery of ten tests. The watches were tested in 10 different environments and to qualify, a watch had to clear all 10 tests. Even failing one of the 10 would rule them out of contention.
Two of the watches fell at the first hurdle, which was a thermo-vacuum test. Only one watch survived the extreme temperatures, vibrations, hard shocks, and unforgiving vacuums of the testing process – the Omega Speedmaster. Thus, this watch was declared ‘operational for space exploration and flight certified’ by NASA.
A year after it was flight-qualified by NASA, Ed White became the first American in space to walk in space (or perform extra-vehicular activity) in June 1965. He was wearing an Omega Speedmaster on his wrist. It would take 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. All crew members were issued Omega Speedmasters (Ref. ST105.012), the legend of the “Moonwatch” was thus born.
“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 the astronauts with the best possible vehicle and equipment in able to achieve our national goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth within the decade of the 1960s. It was basically a 24/7/365 job,” Ragan said in an interview on the Omega website.
However, NASA’s association with Omega began unwittingly in 1962, when astronaut Walter Schirra strapped his personal Omega Speedmaster (CK2998) on the six-orbit, nine-hour Mercury-Atlas 8 mission on October 3, 1962.