Press

21 July 2009

James H. Ragan: NASA’s man behind the MoonWatch

When James H. Ragan retired from NASA in 1999, he closed the door on a 36-year career in aerospace engineering which included the testing of the astronaut chronographs used on NASA’s manned missions. These were, of course, the OMEGA Speedmasters. Mr. Ragan was also a Group Leader responsible for the testing and preparation of flight hardware for the Apollo program and a senior aerospace engineer and system manager in support of Shuttle. In this interview he recalls the chronograph tests, reflects on life at NASA in the sixties and seventies, and thinks about the future of space exploration.

You played a key role in the approval of the OMEGA Speedmaster for all of NASA’s manned spaceflights. Could you comment on NASA’s long relationship with OMEGA?

The relationship started as a business relationship between NASA and OMEGA. 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 insure that they were safe and would fulfil the requirements of the astronauts. The long-term relationship that has existed over the years between NASA and OMEGA turned out to be fantastic. OMEGA was an ideal partner in the quest for space. OMEGA 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 to OMEGA. However, the first chronographs that NASA bought were model 6049 (USA designation). These were to be used for the Gemini program. I found during crew usage for training and flight 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. OMEGA willingly redesigned the case and 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 in such a way 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 were ready to go out and let them run without using the buttons again until they returned.

Is there still important work to be done in the design of chronographs for manned space flight?

OMEGA will continue to design better chronographs using the latest technology for the future with always keeping NASA’s requirements in mind. In its history, NASA has always used commercially available chronographs and will continue to use commercially available chronographs in the future.

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 any special needs generated by the climate extremes on Mars?

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 which we had in the 1960s and 1970s?
Yes, I do 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 1960’s and 1970’s 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 passed time we return to this mindset.

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years must have been particularly intense times for those of you 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 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. 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. Many times 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 program 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 of exploring space. 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 career?

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.

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