Dr Anthony Llewellyn: From Astronaut to Aquanaut - ow-watch

Dr Anthony Llewellyn: From Astronaut to Aquanaut

Dr Anthony Llewellyn: From Astronaut to Aquanaut

Official NASA portrait of astronaut — Anthony Llewellyn, first published on 23 October 1967. (Credit: NASA)

When Dr Anthony Llewellyn posed for his official NASA portrait at 10.30 on Tuesday, July 26th 1967, he couldn't help but reflect on the unlikely journey that had brought him to Houston.

Space exploration wasn't high up on the list of career aspirations for young boys from Cardiff, Wales, in the 1940s. Smart kids like 'Tony' were usually destined for a future in one of the industries that had made the Welsh capital such an essential hub of Britain's industrial revolution. From an early age, however, he had demonstrated an insatiable appetite for knowledge. A red leather–bound encyclopaedia set, gifted to him by his father, had not only fuelled his innate curiosity but had also served as a constant reference throughout his childhood. Tony was forever dismantling and reassembling things to discover how they worked. He was equally fascinated by his environment and, in particular, the ocean and the things within.

The Llewellyns had never lived very far from the coast. Tony's father, John Llewellyn, was a civilian engineer with the Royal Navy during the war, and the family moved between the ports of Cardiff, Bristol, Plymouth and Southampton. Tony always felt an affinity with the sea and throughout his life was most relaxed when close to it, on it or in it.

It was probably inevitable that Tony would become a science student and subsequently embark on a career as a scientific academic. After graduating from University College in Cardiff with a bachelor of science degree and a doctorate degree in chemistry, Llewellyn moved to Canada with his wife and son for a post at the world-renowned National Research Council in Ottawa. Just two years later, in 1960, Dr Llewellyn moved to Tallahassee as a research assistant in Florida State University's chemistry department. Here he also took on the role of research associate in the university's Institute of Molecular Biophysics and would subsequently be appointed to assistant professor. 

One morning in late 1966, while he was waiting for a faculty meeting to start, a newspaper cutting pinned to the department noticeboard caught Dr Llewellyn's eye: Opportunities for Scientists as Astronauts. He leaned in to read the small text: NASA was looking to recruit a new intake of scientist astronauts. Applicants needed to have been born after August 1, 1930, be six feet or less in height, possess a doctorate or equivalent, be physically fit and be United States citizens. Dr Llewellyn met all those criteria, even the latter, thanks to him having become a naturalised US citizen in January that year. He took a pen from his top pocket and discretely noted down the deadline: January 8, 1967. 

Of the 923 applications received, 69 were subjected to a week of gruelling physical and psychological tests and examinations at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. 21 candidates made it through to the interview stage at Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Texas. Of those interviewed, 11 were selected to join The Space Agency's sixth astronaut group. It was the first man in space and national hero, Alan Shepherd, who called Dr Llewellyn personally to inform him that he had been successful.

Ollech & Wajs Zürich Vintage OW Diver
Dr Llewellyn’s distinctive looking dive watch bearing the famous OW marquee

When this press photo was published in newspapers and magazines across the world, those perceptive enough to notice the dive watch poking from under Dr Llewellyn's cuff may have wondered why a scientist would need such a specialist instrument. Back then, dive watches were only worn for underwater activity, not for vanity. The perception that scientist astronauts, as they were labelled, were less 'men of action' than their test pilot counterparts would be dispelled instantly with one look at Dr Lewellyn's bio. Not only was he a proficient scuba diver, open-water swimmer and spearfisherman, he was the training director for Florida State University's diver training program, one of the first scuba certification programs in the United States.

Ollech and Wajs Zürich Vintage OW Diver

 One of the Ollech & Wajs original dive watches, the 1959 reference: OW105

The reference OW105 was one of Ollech & Wajs original dive watches. Dr Llewellyn would often venture beyond what would be considered recreational depths, and for that, he needed a watch fit for purpose. A watch with a water-resistance certification of 660 feet (220 metres) was a remarkable feat of engineering. Dr Llewellyn would however, have conceded that opportunity for diving in Houston would be limited. He wasn't the only high profile figure at NASA to wear an Ollech & Wajs, several scientists and executives were also known to be admirers of the brand. He was, though, as far as we're aware, the first NASA astronaut to wear an OW.

Dr Anthony Llewellyn official NASA group portrait of 1967 Ollech and Wajs Zurich 1956 OW watch Swiss made

 The ‘Group 6’ scientist astronauts’ official NASA group portrait of 1967 — better known as the ‘Excess Eleven’ (Dr Anthony Llewellyn bottom right). Credit: NASA

The 'Group 6' scientists were under no illusion that NASA's priority was firmly on the Apollo program and its current complement of fully trained astronauts. When the group reported to the Manned Spacecraft Center, Deke Slayton, director of Flight Crew Operations, warned them not to fool themselves that they would be going to space anytime soon. With self-deprecation, the men badged themselves the 'XS-11', or 'Excess Eleven'. Llewellyn calculated that in the best-case scenario, it would be at least five years before any of the scientist astronauts got a mission. And even then, space itself was by no means guaranteed.

Just as many of the Apollo astronauts had not found the transition from test pilot to scientist easy, flying a jet plane – even in a simulator – was completely alien to Tony Llewelyn. Just four months into his training, he recognized that he probably wasn't cut out to be a pilot. He was starting to fall behind with his own research and became anxious that he was potentially jeopardizing the years of progress that he had made in his specialist field.

Dr Anthony Llewellyn NASA Manned Spacecraft Centre Ollech and Wajs Zurich 1956 OW watch Swiss made

Anthony Llewellyn in training at NASA Manned Spacecraft Centre, Houston 1967. (Credit: NASA)

At the outset of his NASA adventure, whilst talking to a journalist, Llewellyn paraphrased an Isaac Newton quote, likening the scientific potential of space exploration to 'walking on the edge of the sea and picking up pebbles'. The problem was he didn't want only to be on the shore finding pebbles. He wanted to be in the water itself – not just figuratively but literally. Both his heart and his analytical head were telling him the same thing: the scientific frontier where he could be most effective was not space; it was the sea. His professional destiny lay not amongst the stars but right here on Earth and in its vast, unexplored ocean realm.

With a degree of trepidation, just short of a year into the astronaut program, Dr Llewellyn made a brave – but to his mind entirely logical – decision and withdrew. Only the second man in NASA's history to voluntarily walk away from a moon shot.

However, this was not the end of Dr Llewelyn's life as an explorer; it was merely the beginning. No sooner had he left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration than he joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – from an astronaut to an aquanaut. If he wasn't going into space, he was going to the next best place: the bottom of the ocean. As one of a team of scientists involved in the Manned Undersea Science and Technology Program, he would spend much of the next seven years living and working in a dome on the ocean bed, a mile off the coast of the island of Great Bahama, Florida. 

Hydro-Lab was NOAA's first semi-autonomous undersea habitat – a yellow, pill-shaped capsule secured to the ocean floor by four stilts and tethered to a surface support vessel 50 feet above.

Dr Anthony Llewellyn NOAA Ollech and Wajs Zurich 1956 OW watch Swiss made

Aquanauts busy working at Hydro-Lab. Credit: NOAA/OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP).

Dr Anthony Llewellyn NOAA Hydro-Lab schematics Ollech and Wajs Zurich 1956 OW watch Swiss made

The pill-shaped capsule was infamously small — just 16 feet long with an 8‐foot diameter. Credit: NOAA/OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP).

Dr Anthony Llewellyn NOAA Hydro-Lab photo Ollech and Wajs Zurich 1956 OW watch Swiss made

During a storm, Hydro-Lab once broke loose and floated 25 miles away. Credit: NOAA/OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP).

It was infamously small – just 16 feet long and with an 8‐foot diameter – designed to accommodate three aquanauts but with only enough room for two bunks, meaning occupants had sleep in shifts. Typically, aquanauts would be on the bottom for between 10 and 14 days, and each mission would conclude with a further 14-hour decompression schedule confined inside the Hydro-Lab. Dr Llewellyn's only comfort was the knowledge that he and his fellow aquanaut pioneers were staking their place in history, surviving where humans were not supposed to and going where few scientists had gone before.

The range of scientific study that Dr Llewellyn carried out at Hydro-Lab was wide. As well as pursuing his own academic hypotheses, he also field-tested a variety of prototype environmental, oceanographic, industrial, military and civilian equipment. These comprised water quality and data-measuring instruments; image-intensifying underwater surveillance and photographic equipment, including new Ektachrome infrared and high-speed film emulsions for Kodak; LED and sonic underwater detection systems; and hydraulic tools intended for military, salvage and oil platform saturation divers. One mission involved testing the effect of low-power laser beams on the epiflora and epifauna. Dr Llewellyn even undertook an early coral transplanting experiment, which provided valuable insight on the ability of coral to recover naturally from mechanical and chemical damage.

Dr Anthony Llewellyn NOAA Hydro-Lab photo 2 Ollech and Wajs Zurich 1956 OW watch Swiss made

Experiments were often at the mercy of nature at Hydro-Lab. Credit: NOAA/OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP).

His experiments were often at the mercy of nature. Ocean currents, weather and even the surrounding wildlife were a factor. During the day, various species of sharks and large shoals of barracuda maintained an inquisitive distance (undoubtedly bemused). However, much of the research was conducted at night and up to 500 feet away from the habitat, which exponentially increased the risk of attack. And the local population included tiger sharks – notorious nocturnal hunters. The dark itself also posed dangers to the divers. Many experiments required a complete absence of artificial light and made it necessary for divers to attain a visually dark-adapted state. There was a high possibility of becoming disoriented and not being able to relocate the habitat.

A dive watch with a powerful lume was essential for night diving. Dr Llewellyn would always hold his O&W under the fluorescent tube lighting in the galley for thirty seconds to give the tritium a full charge before venturing out into the black abyss.

The practical challenges of working and surviving deep in the ocean are similar to those in deep space. Astronauts and aquanauts are both subject to long periods of confinement and isolation and are completely reliant on life support systems. The learnings from one environment have long informed the other. Dr Llewellyn was able to transfer many of the principles he had intended to employ in space to the ocean bed. Ironically, from the early 90s onwards, NASA used Hydro-Lab's sister underwater habitat, Aquarius, to prepare more than 40 astronauts for the conditions they would experience in space.

As history shows, Llewellyn's pessimism about his prospects of short-term space flight turned out to be prophetic. Less than a year after his departure, the entire Apollo program was cut short, and it would be 16 years before any of the original XS-11 ever made it into space.

In 1972, as the last of the Apollo astronauts ascended the ladder of the lunar landing module onto the surface of the moon, 50 feet under the Atlantic, Dr Tony Llewellyn was climbing down the ladder of the Hydro-Lab onto the moonlit seabed. He marvelled at the bioluminescent life-forms twinkling all around him like distant stars in the darkness. Hanging there, weightless in the water, he imagined for a moment that he was floating in outer space and pondered what might have been. But the chemistry professor had no regrets, for, at last, he was truly in his element.