Tuesday 31 March 2009 – Omega presented one of the most compelling and best-attended events at this year’s Baselworld trade fair. Four astronauts who wore their OMEGA Speedmasters on the Moon were joined by other key players in NASA’s manned space program at a news conference at the Swatch Group Plaza in the middle of the Hall of Dreams on Saturday, March 28th.
On the 20th of July, Omega and the rest of the world will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing and the event was an advance celebration of one of mankind’s most historic adventures.
Moonwalkers Buzz Aldrin, Charles Duke, Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan took the stage along with their colleague Thomas Stafford, who commanded the Apollo 10 mission, and Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier. The dream panel for space aficionados was rounded out by Gerald Griffin, one of NASA’s lead flight directors for the Apollo missions and Jim Ragan, the aerospace engineer responsible for the chronograph tests which led to the selection of the Speedmaster as the only watch qualified for each of NASA’s manned space flights since May of 1963.
The event began with comments from Omega president Stephen Urquhart, who spoke with pride about his company’s long relationship with NASA and its astronauts. Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek remembered that the Apollo 11 landing had impressed him so much as a 14-year-old that his parents bought him a Speedmaster at the time. He described the astronauts as “my personal heroes”. Hayek added, “We all know what it is to dream and these guys lived our dreams better than anyone else.”
The CEO’s father, Swatch Group Chairman Nicolas G. Hayek said that he was thrilled to be able to participate in an event “which honours this American face we love – these people who create and do things.”
Master of ceremonies, science journalist Roland Goerg, then introduced the astronauts and scientists, making brief comments about each as he invited them to the podium.
The first one to take his place on stage was Buzz Aldrin who was, with Neil Armstrong, one of the first men to land on the Moon and the second to set foot on the lunar surface. He recalled the launch day vividly: “I found myself standing by myself. In the distance I could see the sun and the waves of the ocean and the millions of people who had come to watch the launch. I knew that it was a moment I would never forget.”
Gerald Griffin, a legendary flight director for ¨the Apollo missions said that as Apollo 11’s Lunar Module descended to the Moon’s surface, there was an unusual stillness at Mission Control in Houston. “It was normally a beehive of activity,” he said, “but for those seconds, you could hear a pin drop. No one breathed until we heard Neil say, ‘Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’”
Talking about the unique challenges of operating the Lunar Rover on the Moon’s surface on later missions, Charles Duke of Apollo 16 pointed out that the Lunar Rover had the potential to be driven quite a distance from the landing site. “But we never went more than a few kilometres away because if it broke down, we’d have to walk back.”
Jim Ragan was responsible for testing the chronographs to be used by NASA’s astronauts. Ragan described placing a “nebulous order for price quotes on chronographs.” He said that the suppliers in the early 1960s knew the watches were for NASA but had no idea what they were to be used for.
Referring to the OMEGA Speedmaster, Ragan said, “To the best of my knowledge, the Speedmaster is the only piece of hardware which was used from the very beginning without any modification.”
OMEGA president Urquhart quickly commented to loud applause, “And that’s why forty years later we haven’t changed it.”
Gene Cernan who walked on the Moon with Harrison Schmitt in the last Apollo mission added, “In time, I can assure you that we will send a manned mission to Mars and when that happens, the first astronaut to step onto the Martian surface will be wearing a Speedmaster.”
Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier was part of four space shuttle missions, having flown on Atlantis, Endeavour, Columbia and Discovery. He was also the first European to take a space walk when he had the responsibility of repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nicollier described OMEGA’s new challenge – the company is providing capital and technological support to the Solar Impulse project whose aim is to circumnavigate the globe in an airplane powered only by the sun. Nicollier is actively involved in the project, having designed a special tool to help pilots land the aircraft.
At the end of the news conference, Buzz Aldrin was presented with an OMEGA Speedmaster Apollo 11 “40th Anniversary” Limited Edition Moonwatch which was released to commemorate his and Neil Armstrong’s historic walks on the Moon nearly 40 years ago.
Moderator Roland Goerg commented on the panellists: “These men are true heroes of our time. They invested all their energy and talent; they risked their lives to make a dream come true.”
It was particularly fitting that the astronauts shared the stage with two men who worked behind the scenes: one, a flight director who dedicated his professional life to making sure that the astronauts returned safely to earth, and another, who more than 45 years ago, approved the only watch to be qualified for all manned spaceflights: the OMEGA Speedmaster.