America’s firstmanned space missions began with Project Mercury, established on October 7, 1958. The astronauts aboard Mercury spacecraft wore their own personal wristwatches. Some of these were Omega Speedmasters.
In his address to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy urged the country to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. In pursuit of this goal, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced a plan in December that year to extend Project Mercury to develop a two-man spacecraft. This new programme was named Gemini.
Astronaut Walter Schirra was wearing his own Speedmaster when he and his Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft orbited the Earth six times on October 3, 1962, a flight lasting 9 hours and 15 minutes. NASA decided to make astronauts’ wristwatches part of their equipment for Project Gemini and for the subsequent Apollo program, and thus for the moon landing. The agency commissioned James H. Ragan, a NASA aerospace engineer and flight hardware expert, to write a list of specs, test potential watches and purchase the winning models. The watch would have to be a chronograph, and an official call for candidates was issued. In addition to Omega, other entrants were Longines, Wittnauer and Rolex. All models were tested under zero gravity, extreme pressure variations, bone-jarring vibrations, and temperatures ranging from -18 to +93 degrees Celsius. The watches were also tested by astronauts aboard a Gemini space flight.
The Speedmaster outperformed all the other watches in both test series. The watch was officially designated as “flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions” on March 1, 1965. NASA bought an initial group of 15 to 20 Speedmaster watches from Omega. Unlike almost all other Apollo equipment, the watch was not manufactured for use specifically by NASA or for use in space but was available in retail outlets in the U.S.
The first Speedmaster models flew into space three weeks later on the wrists of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young as official equipment aboard Gemini 3. This was the first official trip for the chronograph although it had already flown in space twice on Project Mercury missions.
The real test for the Speedmaster came on June 3, 1965, during the Gemini 4 mission, when astronaut Edward H. White wore the chronograph over the sleeve of his spacesuit for a spacewalk. The environment in outer space is as harsh as any, a watch will encounter anywhere. Near-vacuum conditions and extreme temperatures prevail. The temperature on the side of the ship exposed to the sun climbs to about 100ºC and plummets on the other side to approximately –100ºC. In anticipation of these rigors, Omega developed prototypes with red anodised aluminum cases for protection from extreme temperature variations and dials coated with zinc oxide to provide the highest resistance to solar radiation. But these prototypes turned out to be unnecessary because the Speedmaster withstood the extreme temperatures without any modifications.
Omega added the word “Professional” to the Speedmaster’s dial in 1965 and highlighted the watch’s role in space exploration in the brand’s advertising campaigns. The race to put the first man on the moon was, by then, in full swing. The USSR had led the U.S. in the space race for several years. The first man-made object to reach the lunar surface was the Soviet Lunik 2 space probe, which accomplished a planned crash-landing in 1959. On Feb. 3, 1966, the Soviets also completed the first soft landing on the moon with their Luna 9 spacecraft.
Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon at 2:56:20 GMT on July 21, 1969. The electronic chronograph aboard the lunar module had malfunctioned, so Armstrong left his Speedmaster inside the spacecraft. That’s why Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first man to wear the Speedmaster on the moon when he left the module 13 minutes later and joined Armstrong on the lunar surface. The Moonwatch was born! The fantastic photos shot by the Apollo 11 astronauts were transmitted to Earth and sent around the globe, and the Speedmaster was clearly visible in many of these historic images. The same Speedmaster model accompanied other astronauts on later lunar expeditions.
The Speedmaster played a decisive role in assuring a safe return for the astronauts aboard the now-famous Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. On the third day after liftoff, one of the two oxygen tanks aboard the spacecraft exploded. The blast also damaged the second tank. Oxygen wasn’t needed only to allow the crew to breathe, it was also essential for the fuel cells that produced the craft’s electricity and water. A lunar landing was out of the question now. The crew was ordered to return to Earth as quickly as possible. All systems were switched to emergency fuel-saving status and electricity was supplied only to those devices essential for life. The spacecraft’s trajectory was guided into an orbit around the moon to gain a gravitational boost for the return flight. But to put the craft on the correct trajectory for a safe return into the Earth’s atmosphere, the rockets would have to be fired for a few seconds while the spaceship was behind the moon and out of radio contact with ground control. The electronic clock aboard the vessel had likewise been switched off to conserve power, so the crew had to rely on their Speedmaster for the all-important 14-second firing of the lunar module’s descent propulsion system. A 10 per cent error would have had fatal consequences: the spaceship would have missed Earth and continued into deep space, never to return home. But the Speedmaster performed impeccably and, thanks to its precision, the three astronauts returned safely to Earth.
The life-saving performance of the Speedmaster was acknowledged by the astronauts. In October 1970, Omega received the Snoopy Award, an honor NASA’s Astronauts Office confers on employees and contractors who have made especially important contributions to the success of NASA missions. The certificate was autographed by the crew of Apollo 13: James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert.
A competitor challenged the Speedmaster in 1972, shortly before Apollo 17 lifted off for the last flight to the moon. American watch manufacturer Bulova was putting pressure on NASA to follow the “Buy American Act,” which was intended to promote American products. Bulova achieved partial success by persuading NASA to begin a new series of tests in which 16 different chronographs participated. In addition to the tests conducted in 1964 and 1965, the watches were also exposed to magnetic fields. Once again, the Speedmaster was judged to be the most robust and the most precise, and was chosen to continue serving as NASA’s official wristwatch. This meant it would be the standard equipment for the final lunar landing and all subsequent manned activities in outer space. Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, wore a Speedmaster. Furthermore, Speedmaster chronographs were strapped around the wrists of both the American astronaut Tom Stafford (who would later become chairman of Omega USA) and the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov during the historic Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in July 1975. This was the first time cosmonauts also wore the Speedmaster, which has been the official chronograph of Russian manned space missions ever since.
A new era in space flight began when the U.S. built a reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle. For this new programme, nearly all of the supplier contracts were, in 1978, subjected to a call for new suppliers. This included a search for new watches: approximately 30 brands were invited to submit their chronographs for testing. In addition to the classic Speedmaster Professional with hand-wound caliber 861, Omega also sent a Speedmaster 125 (a self-winding mechanical chronometer with a central elapsed-minutes counter) and an electronic Speedsonic with a tuning fork regulator. After four months of intensive testing, the winner was chosen: once again, the hand-wound Speedmaster Professional proved to be the best among the tested watches. Timekeeping by quartz watches deviated too drastically in the extremely high and low temperatures, and LCD displays froze in the frigid cold. NASA purchased 56 Speedmaster Professional watches. This model has remained the only wristwatch authorised for astronauts to wear during extra-vehicular activities.
The Speedmaster has been a part of highly diverse missions, but the watch itself has undergone very few changes since its introduction in 1957. The first version had a steel-coloured bezel with a tachymeter scale, an arrowhead at the tip of its hour hand and an acutely tapering minutes hand. The designers’ goal was to create an extremely legible dial, so the tachymeter scale was on the bezel. Inside the case ticked hand-wound caliber 321 with column-wheel control for its chronograph functions. This movement was based on caliber 27 CHRO C 12, the brand’s first chronograph movement with a counter for 12 elapsed hours, which was designed in 1942. This caliber was further developed by Albert Piguet at Lémania in 1946, whose efforts led to the creation of caliber 321. Omega had acquired Lémania Lugrin in 1932. When Omega introduced the Speedmaster in 1957, this caliber was still state-of-the-art and would remain so for many years.
The second version of the Speedmaster debuted in 1959. It was equipped with alpha hands and the characteristic black tachymeter bezel. Astronaut Walter Schirra wore this model in 1962 when he made it the first Speedmaster to be worn during extra-vehicular activity.
The third version of the Speedmaster debuted in 1963. With it came the current look, with baton hands for the hours and minutes and an arrowhead at the tip of the central elapsed-seconds hand. The asymmetrical case with raised right side to protect the push-pieces was introduced in 1963 and is still in use today, but the symmetrical case was also manufactured until 1966. As mentioned earlier, the word “Professional” was added to the Speedmaster’s dial in 1965.
On the back of the case is the seahorse emblem that Omega uses on its water-resistant watches. Only between 1969 and 1971 was this emblem temporarily replaced by Omega’s logo, along with the phrases “The first watch worn on the moon” and “Flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions.” Omega later changed to the caseback design that’s in use today, with the embossed seahorse in the centre and the two phrases around the border.
The movement has undergone relatively few changes over the years. Lémania simplified caliber 321 and released it as caliber 861 in 1968. Instead of a column wheel, the simpler version relied on a cam to control its chronograph functions. It also had a smooth balance rather than one with screws along its rim and the frequency of the balance was increased from 18,000 vph to a more modern speed of 21,600 vph. The Speedmaster was modified to house this movement the same year. Watches with the newer caliber 861 can be recognised by the printed Omega logo on the dials, which replaced the applied logo. Several details in the caliber were changed in 1996, and the movement has been known as caliber 1861 ever since. Last year, Omega introduced a new Speedmaster with an in-house movement, caliber 9,300, which contains a co-axial escapement (see previous article for a comparison between this watch and the caliber 1861 model).
Although the watch’s design has varied little over the decades—even the Plexiglas crystal found on the original Speedmaster is still used today—there have been many variations and special models. The Speedmaster Professional Mark II, which had a tonneau-shaped case and a hardened mineral crystal, was first marketed in 1969. Omega introduced the first self-winding Speedmaster Professional, the Mark III, in 1971. A very modern wristwatch for its time, it had a date display, a central hand to count elapsed minutes and an additional 24-hour display. In 1973, Omega launched a limited-edition Speedmaster 125 that housed the same movement as the Mark III but was chronometer certified. This movement also powered the Mark IV, introduced in the same year. Electronics were introduced in 1974, when Omega launched the Speedsonic f 300 Hz, with a tuning-fork movement. The Speedmaster Quartz with LCD display came out in 1977. Different models of this watch were built in subsequent years. A series of Speedmaster Professional watches was equipped with crystal backs for the first time in 1980, and the numerical designation “863” was given to the embellished version of caliber 861.
The 1980s saw the debut of the Mark V, a mechanical Speedmaster with a rounded case. A model with a moon-phase display and a hand-type date in the Professional line was also introduced that decade. Omega further expanded the Speedmaster family with a smaller “Reduced” model with automatic movement, the Broad Arrow, and the popular Speedmaster Racing models, which were created in collaboration with Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula 1 world champion.
Although the hand-wound Speedmaster Professional remains the only wristwatch authorised for spacewalks, new technology has made possible various functions that are important for space travel. Omega collaborated with astronauts to develop the quartz-controlled Speedmaster X-33 multi-function watch. Prototypes were tested by jet pilots and by astronauts aboard the Mir space station. With an analog-digital display, this model, introduced in 1998, was named for the planned successor to the space shuttle, which was later cancelled. Like the Moonwatch, this timepiece is “Flight-qualified by NASA for space missions.” The phrase is engraved on the back of the watch, which also has the embossed seahorse emblem. One of the important new functions for astronauts is “mission elapsed time,” the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds that have elapsed since liftoff. This simplifies timing for the astronauts because scheduling for every experiment is expressed in “mission elapsed time.” The alarm, which rings at 80 decibels, is extremely loud and can also be felt as vibrations on the wrist.