Since the late 1960s, the Omega Speedmaster has become a brand unto itself and an invariable part of horological pop culture for every generation of watch enthusiasts. It’s a tale that has been told many times, but it must be said that the Speedmaster’s place in watchmaking has less to do with it being the first watch on the moon and more so with the course that had led it there, which was entirely quantifiable and attributable, certainly not a matter of luck.
The enmity between the United States and Soviet Union had deepened in the aftermath of WWII. The atomic bomb that ended the war had in turn set the stage for an arms race. However, the two superpowers had established a mutual deterrence against battling out militarily, as it would inevitably end in a nuclear exchange that would wipe out both sides – and possibly mankind. Thus, instead of engaging in open warfare, the tension between the Cold War combatants played out on several other fronts such as the sponsoring of opposing sides in military conflicts and distinctly, a race heavenwards.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets sent a human pilot Yuri Gagarin into space for the first time in history. He allegedly wore a Russian Sturmanskie watch when he orbited the earth, so in no way was the Speedmaster the first watch to have left our atmosphere. Omega’s involvement in the space race began unofficially on October 3, 1962, sixteen months after President John. F. Kennedy had challenged Americans to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely. NASA astronaut Walter M. Schirra Jr. wore a Speedmaster CK2998 (yet to acquire its “Professional” suffix) on the Mercury-Atlas 8 Sigma 7 mission. This, however, was his personal watch back when astronauts weren’t kitted out with official watches by NASA.
Launched in 1959, the CK2998 was the second version of the Speedmaster chronograph, the first watch with a tachymeter bezel. It differed from the first, the CK2915 “Broad Arrow” of 1957, in that it had a black aluminium insert on its tachymeter bezel, alpha hands, “O” ring gaskets around the pushers for greater water resistance and a seahorse motif on the case back. Over the course of two years, there were a number of other watches worn to space including Heuer, Bulova, Breitling, Casio and Sinn, although most were Omega Speedmasters on the wrists of NASA astronauts. As the space race took shape some 200,000 miles above, the race to become the official watch supplier to the astronauts was on.
In 1964, following a petition by astronauts for backup timing devices on their missions, Flight Crew Operations Director, Deke Slayton, issued an internal memo requesting for “a highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews”. A total of 10 candidates were invited to deliver a watch: Hamilton, Mido, Luchin Piccard, Omega, Elgin, Gruen, Benrus, Bulova, Rolex and Longines. Incredulously, out of the 10, only four responded: Rolex, Longines, Hamilton, and Omega. The wheels were then set in motion for a stringent series of tests to select a winner for the job. NASA’s new test engineer, Jim Ragan had ruled out the Hamilton right off the bat as it did not fulfil the fundamental requirement issued by NASA, specifically for a wristwatch, submitting instead a pocket watch.
To win, the three remaining watches had to undergo a series of 11 tests which included prolonged heat, cold, vibrations, humidity, pressure, acceleration, shock, vacuum, decompression, noise and a corrosive oxygen environment. While we know the outcome, it remains a fact worth savouring that the Speedmaster ref. 105.003 had beaten the Rolex chronograph in the first few hurdles such as humidity and high temperature in which the chronograph hand of the latter had misshapen under heat. Longines, on the other hand, failed because of its crystal, which gave way under heat and vacuum. On top of the rigorous technical tests, another set of the same watches were also given to the astronauts who wore them during training. They would then report on the watches’ hardiness and usability. And the Speedmaster proved superior through and through.
A year after the Speedmaster was flight-qualified by NASA, Ed White became the first American to walk in space on June 1965. On his wrist was the Omega Speedmaster ref. 105.003 (still “pre-Professional”). It was the first reference to feature luminous straight hour and minute hands, and was produced until 1966.
It would take another four years until the Speedmaster Professional accompanied White’s colleagues to the moon. The Apollo 11, on which millions of Americans pitched their hopes and dreams, blasted off on 16 July 1969 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, and four days later, Commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle lunar module on the surface of the Moon, in the Sea of Tranquillity. The ST105.012 was the watch worn by both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and it performed without a fault.
The Speedmaster Professional henceforth became known as the ‘Moonwatch.’ And its pre-eminence in space travel thereafter is indisputable. Only 12 men since 1969 have set foot on the moon and all of them had a Speedmaster on during their respective missions.
But it was in the Apollo 13 rescue of 1970 when the Speedmaster proved pivotal in the face of a crisis that was – literally – out of this world. Commander Jim Lovell was forced to abort his mission to land on the moon when an oxygen tank in the main command module exploded some 200,000 miles from Earth and two days into its journey. They had to shut down nearly all power, including heat and the cabin clock, to preserve energy and instead looped around the moon.
Two midcourse corrections had to be made to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely, bearing in mind that this was a Lunar Module – designed solely to land on the moon and was to be discarded once they returned to the main command module. On the last controlled burn, the crew needed to manually adjust the course of the craft through a 14-second burn. That was when their backup timing device got its 14 seconds of fame in what perhaps is history’s most effective use of a chronograph. The capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Samoa on April 17th. And upon their safe return, the astronauts of Apollo 13 awarded Omega with the Silver Snoopy, a special award bestowed by NASA on employees and contractors for outstanding achievements.
In the later years, Omega won all subsequent NASA qualification tests against an even larger number of brands who wanted a slice of its pie: Breitling, Bulova, Elmore, Elgin, Forbes, Girard-Perregaux, Gruen, Hamilton, Heuer, LeJour, Longines, Omega, Rolex, Seiko and Zodiac.
The Speedmaster also bore witness to another significant moment of geopolitical collaboration: the historic handshake that ended the space race between the United States and Russia. On July 17, 1975, during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the Apollo rocket, under the command of Thomas Stafford, and the Soviet Union’s Soyuz, under Alexey Lennov’s command, docked in space for a handshake and made history. On both their wrists were Omega Speedmasters.
The best part in all of this is that Omega themselves could not have scripted a better backstory even if they tried, because rare is a watch that becomes a milestone in horology and even rarer is the watch that is so intimately entwined with the milestones of humanity.