On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the NASA Apollo 11 moon landing, watchmaker Omega celebrates its integral history with the space program with a series of out-of-this world timepieces.
Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 landing. You can see his Omega Speedmaster Professional low on the right arm of his spacesuit with an extended Velcro strap.
Certainly, on both the U.S. and Soviet Union sides, early astronauts brought their personal timepieces into space. Since most crew members were military-trained pilots, watches were for practical use—a quick glance at the wrist for essential timing information. However, the Omega Speedmaster and its variants are the only timepieces tested and officially authorized by NASA as “space watches.” And, the Omega Speedmaster Professional that Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was issued during Apollo 11 in 1969 is, undeniably, the first watch on the moon.
The funny thing is, the Speedmaster wasn’t purpose-designed to go to space. It was developed to be a superior manual-winding chronograph for race car drivers who, hopefully, remained planted firmly on the ground. Only NASA knew what tests the watch candidates for authorization would go through; no one knew the kinds of features that would make for the ideal watch in that scenario. Could it be that a great terrestrial watch also makes for the best timepiece for exploration outside Earth’s atmosphere?
The Apollo 11-era Moonwatch
According to Jim Ragan, the former NASA engineer in charge of the program’s equipment testing, Omega was the choice for many pilots, and Walter Schirra brought his personal Speedmaster CK2998 along for the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1963. As it became clear crew members wanted watches as part of their officially issued gear—specifically, chronographs—in 1964, NASA’s director of flight crew operations, Deke Slayton, produced a requirement spec, and several watchmakers submitted bids.
The list included four contenders, with Omega, of course, among them. One submission was not a wristwatch, but a large boxy device that was never tested. Two watches were eliminated after the first challenge, a thermal vacuum test. But the Omega passed with flying colors. Ragan had separately issued the contending watches to the astronauts to get their independent impressions as well. And, as luck would have it, the crew preferred the Omega Speedmaster Professional. Thus, the Moonwatch was born March 1, 1965.
However, it took a few more years to get it there. Gus Grissom and John Young were the first astronauts to officially bring Omegas into space on Gemini 3, also in March 1965. “I haven’t met an astronaut who didn’t like the watch,” Ragan recently said during a special celebration of the moon landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
From 1957 to 1965, Omega produced Speedmasters driven by the legendary calibre 321 movement. In 1968, the 861 movement was introduced, which raised the watch’s frequency from 2.5 to 3 hertz, enhancing accuracy. The column wheel was also replaced with a shuttle mechanism for a more robust chronograph function. The modern 1861 movement was added in 1996. It is this format of the Speedmaster—still used by all astronauts and, now, all cosmonauts and crew of the International Space Station—that is the modern Moonwatch. To honor its role in the space program, Omega has issued several commemorative Speedmasters (see “New Moons”).
Photography by: omega watches