Apollo 50: The little piece of Ashton that is still on the moon

When you next look up at the moon, bear in mind that among all the other man-made items up there, a lot of them left by the six manned Apollo missions, there might just be a little piece of Ashton.

Fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, the Apollo XI lunar module Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquillity. The crew, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were both wearing Omega 105.012 Speedmaster watches - whose straps were made by specialist Ashton leather company George Nixon and Co.

In the firm’s official history, author David Marsden writes: “When the first flight to the moon was in the offing it was decided that the astronauts would wear watches on their wrists which could be discarded just before leaving the moon.

“A certain Swiss watch manufacturer (Omega) was approached and they approached (Swiss leather firm) Buchmann, who then approached Nixon’s.

“The tannage had to be different because all veg would stiffen and crack in the cold, so a lot of chromium was applied. The fat liquor was changed to a mineral oil whose freezing point was below that found on the moon’s surface, and a finish was put on top of the black leather which was supposed to be able to resist low temperatures.

“The whole was printed with a bison grain in the hope that it would camouflage any failings in the leather. The watch straps were sent off to NASA and as far as is known (and seen) they were discarded and are still there (on the moon) to this day.”

In fact, Armstrong left his watch inside the Eagle as the lunar module’s electronic timer was not working properly. Aldrin, however, did wear his and so his Speedmaster became the first watch to be worn on the moon.

Later, in his 1973 book ‘Return to Earth’ he wrote: “It was optional to wear (the watch) while we were walking on the surface of the moon.. few things are less necessary when walking around on the moon than knowing what time it is in Houston, Texas.

“Nonetheless, being a watch guy, I decided to strap the Speedmaster on to my right wrist around the outside of my bulky spacesuit.”

Pictures show this to be the case. In the classic moonwalk image of Aldrin, where he is seen with Tranquility Base reflected in his gold-tinted visor, the black watch strap clearly stands out against the white of his spacesuit.

Although Mr Marsden states that the watches were left on the lunar surface, Aldrin says he brought his back to earth but it was lost in transit when he sent it to the Smithsonian Institution. Presumably Armstrong’s watch came home too.

Nonetheless, what can’t be disputed is that items manufactured in Ashton were part of one of the most momentous events in human history.

George Nixon and Co was established in Ashton in 1934 and had its base at Good Hope Mill, Bentinck Street. Over the next 50 years it processed leather for a wide array of uses including shoes, watches and fancy goods. It closed in 1990.

Another Apollo XI link with the Tameside area comes through Aldrin’s first wife, Joan. She was part of the Cleminshaw family of Bardsley and in 1969 one of her cousins, Bertha Broadbent, lived on Ashton Road.

The Reporter sent a good luck message to Colonel Aldrin before his historic mission in space in 1966.

Aldrin had replied saying that he hoped to visit Bardsley one day with Joan having visited back in 1950.

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