‘Panel of Heroes’ Tell Tales of Space and Time at BaselWorld

From left: Nicolas Hayek,U.S. astronauts who have walked on the moon and bravely pioneered space exploration were the stars of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of human beings’ first lunar landing, presented by Omega, the first and only watch worn on the moon, at BaselWorld 2009 on Mar. 28.

The “panel of heroes,” as Stephen Urguhart, president of Omega worldwide called them, held an audience of hundreds of retailers and journalists spellbound for 80 minutes with personal tales of their experiences on the moon and in space—especially the final, anxious minutes before the first landing by Apollo 11—and the importance to their precisely-timed endeavors of their Omega Speedmaster watches, the official watch of the National Space and Aeronautics Administration.

These men “represent the America we love, the real America, people who courageously create and do things for the good of all humanity,” said Nicolas G. Hayek, Sr., chairman of the Board of Directors of the Swatch Group, owner, manufacturer, and distributor of Omega watches.

Taking part were astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., who piloted the Apollo 11 lunar module’s successful landing; Eugene Cernan and Harrison Scmitt, the last men to walk on the moon; Thomas Stafford; Charles Duke; and Claude Nicollier, the first Swiss astronaut who flew on the Space Shuttle; Gerald D. Griffin, Apollo 11 flight director; and James H. Ragan, NASA technician for the Apollo program.

All shared their thoughts and experiences on space and time.

Aldrin recalled looking out one of the window on Apollo module, in the final moments before takeoff, at the horizon and thinking, “This is a moment you must remember. You’re embarking on an historic mission.”

After they landed, and Apollo commander Neil Armstrong prepared to step onto the moon, “I wondered, What is Neil going to say?’ said Adrin. “No one knew, but Neil is a guy who always surprises you, and when I heard him say, ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant step for mankind,’ it sent chills down my spine. And then, he immediately began collecting moon rock samples.”

Aldin himself had a memorable phrase as he stepped out, calling the moonscape—grey against a black sky—“Magnificent desolation.” Later, looking up at the “blue ball” of earth, he thought, “Millions are watching us. We better not mess up!”

Duke, who was the astronaut’s radio contact at Mission Control in Houston, and Griffin recalled the anxious minutes before the landing. “Very tense,” said Duke. The Apollo 11 only had 30 seconds of fuel left as it sought a landing spot. “You could hear a pin drop” in the usually noisy control center, said Duke. Then Armstrong radioed said “Contact. Engine down.” (“and we hoped they had landed upside, not upside down,” said Duke). And then, “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” With that, said Griffith, “Mission Control went absolutely ecstatic, shouting, cheering, and applauding. Then, after 30 seconds, we all went back to work for the mission.”

There were “some setbacks” in the U.S. Apollo moon program, said Griffin, as when a lightning bolt struck Apollo 12, just 30 seconds after lift-off, knocking out electrical power and computers—as the rocket blasted toward space—or the explosion on Apollo 13, that forced Masson Control and Apollo 13’s astronauts to improvise procedures to get the astronauts back to earth, alive. But events like that “showed how well prepared we were” then to deal with any situation, said Griffin.

Cernan spoke of how “overpowering it is to see the earth from the moon, a half million miles away,” while Schmitt, the only civilian and scientist (geologist) in the Apollo program spoke of Apollo 17 “landing in a moon canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon” and discovering and taking samples of volcanic “orange soil, important to understanding the origin and evolution of the moon.”

And they spoke of time and the moon.

Cernan, who called himself “an ambassador for Omega,” noted that on the moon, “we were involved not only in the dimension of space, and but also time. Our Speedmasters, in a small way, represented the essence of time, and were our connection with back home, with Earth.”

Cernan said he wore the same Omega Speedmaster watch “on all my missions and I still wear it. It keeps perfect time, with no repairs all these years, and I consider that impressive.’

Adrin, the first man to wear a watch an Omega Speedmaster, on the moon (Armstrong decided not to wear his), spoke of how the watch was an essential part of exploration equipment, set to the Apollo program’s “Ground Elapsed Time” and essential for various maneuvers and check-offs against flight plans. He called for a new Omega Speedmaster for the future’s Mars missions, “set to Mars’ 24.5 hours and years of 689 days.” 

Schmitt recalled how his Speedmaster’s crystal “popped off” in the moon’s vacuum—“but kept operating anyway, even when moon dust got into it the mechanical watch.

At the conclusion, Urguhart presented a special edition of the Omega Speedmaster to Aldrin (and for Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Michel Collins) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first successful moon landing and the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Late, in interviews with JCK, both Schmitt and Aldrin, said that—while some people question the need for wristwatches in a era of cell phones and IPods—timepieces will continue to be essential to astronauts and deep space exploration. “You need timepieces to execute various maneuvers timely and to know constantly what point you’re at in your mission schedule and plans,” said Aldrin. “Chronometers will remain important to the program, said Schmitt.

Both said they are disappointed by the “underfunding” of U.S. space exploration efforts, but expect a return to the moon within the next 20 years—though it may be by other countries, like China, as well as the U.S.—to establish human settlements and “then using what we learn then there, focusing to Mars,” said Aldrin.

Caption: Nicolas Hayek (left), chairman of the Swatch Group and Stephen Urguhart, president of Omega worldwide, listen as Apollo 11 astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin recounts some of his experiences on the moon during the Omega watch event at BaselWorld 2009 event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first successful moon landing.

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