Also referred to in the watch community as the “Moonwatch,” the Omega Speedmaster is a spectacular timepiece with a fascinating history. That’s because, as far as wrist watches are concerned, the Speedmaster was not only the first modern-day chronograph ever built (hosting the now standard layout of three counters and a timing scale on the bezel) but was also the first watch worn by an astronaut during the Apollo 11 mission. Even more so, the Speedmaster assisted in the historic failed Apollo 13 lunar landing mission (more on that later).
It’s from here that the Speedmaster steadily gained a reputation of a reliable, durable, and historic timepiece from the esteemed Omega brand. In fact, even after all these years and subsequent watch iterations over the past half-century, the Speedmaster Professional remains one of only several watches qualified by NASA for spaceflight and the only watch qualified by the organization for the extravehicular activity (EVA). Here’s how it earned that reputation.
Surprisingly enough, Omega did not originally design the Speedmaster for space exploration. Instead, the timepiece was positioned as a sport and racing chronograph watch based on the earlier Omega models from the ’20s and ‘30s – namely the 28.9 chronograph that served as the brand’s first small wrist chrono. From here, the Speedmaster’s Omega Calibre 321 movement was later developed in 1946 and perfected before its application in the CK 2915 model in 1957 with the first Speedmaster model. The timepiece also set the standard for the modern-day chronograph dial in general, including the hallmark 12-hour, triple register chronograph layout
As for the name, “Speedmaster” came from the model’s brushed stainless steel tachymeter scale bezel (compliments of its original racing heritage). Additionally, there was brand consistency to consider as well, allowing the new watch to mesh well with its fellow Seamaster and Railmaster brethren. As mentioned earlier, the timepiece also set the standard for the modern-day chronograph dial in general. We’re speaking, of course, about the watch’s hallmark 12-hour, triple register chronograph layout in addition to Omega’s high contrast index markers, Plexiglas crystal, and broad arrow handset.
The Speedmaster’s Key Qualifiers
While it’s no secret Omega set out to build a reliable and durable timepiece, the brand had no plans for building a watch durable enough for space exploration. It all began, however, in 1962 when Wally Schirra took his personal CK 2998 – Omega’s second Speedmaster iteration – aboard the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in October of that year. Afterward, a series of additional chronographs were purchased and tested for use in the anticipated Gemini and Apollo missions to come. The top contenders? Breitling, Rolex, and Omega all vied for acceptance into the NASA program. Naturally, Omega would come out on top.
So, what makes a watch suitable for NASA space exploration? Well, the organization ran each of these timepieces through the gauntlet to determine its reliability in several extreme environments. For instance, we’ve outlined a couple key qualifications below to give you an idea of the sorts of tests these watches were given.
High Temp: 48-hours at 160°F followed by 20 minutes at 200°F
Low Temp: 4 hours at 0°F
High Pressure: 1.6 ATM for one hour
Vibration: 3 cycles of 30 minute vibrations varying from 5 to 2000 Hz
Linear acceleration: 1-7.25g in 333 seconds
All watches tested through this phase were hand-wound chronographs since we were still a few years away from the first automatic watches to hit the market. Needless to say, after such rigorous testing, the Speedmaster impressed all whereas it retained a rate within 5 seconds per day after such tests.
How Omega's Speedmaster Saved The Day
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” These famous words spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell on April 14, 1970, following an oxygen tank explosion continue to ring true for those who remember one of the most heightened situations of the last century. What’s not typically remembered, however, is the role the Omega Speedmaster played in ensuring a safe return to earth after the mission had obviously failed.
Originally purposed as a mission for a lunar landing, Apollo 13 began running dangerously low on power and fuel following the explosion. Instead, they utilized the moon’s gravitational pull to kind of slingshot them around it in hopes of establishing a meaningful forward trajectory back to earth in an extreme power reserve mode. This was necessary to keep the Lunar Module life-support and basic communication systems operational for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. However, powering the shuttle down to the lowest levels possible put severe limitations on the crew, and made any mechanical devices – the Speedmaster for instance – highly valuable. The crew used an Omega Speedmaster to time the final 14-second burn to get home safely since at the time the Command Module was dead.
It was here that Jim Lovell needed to set a course trajectory back towards earth for a safe landing via a 14-second burn to give them enough momentum in the right direction. If this failed, they crew risked bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere and back into space with not enough fuel to return them home. It went without saying, this needed to work. So, the crew used an Omega Speedmaster to time this 14-second burn to get home safely since at the time the Command Module was dead.
Once the crew arrived safely home, NASA awarded the Omega Speedmaster with the Silver Snoopy Award – given to NASA contractors and employees achievements made in the realm of human flight safety and/or mission success. Since then, Omega has released two commemorative timepieces celebrating the storied recognition from NASA.
The Legend Lives On
Throughout the following years, Omega’s reputation in the watch industry continued to gain traction as later iterations of the Speedmaster were released. Clearly, the brand had a high-demand and reputable item on their hands so diversification soon became key. Later examples included more complicated models complete with perpetual calendars, moon phases, and split-second versions. Additionally, we’d find more luxurious iterations of the Speedmaster now adorned with diamond-sets and skeletonized versions.
We also saw the launch of X-33, now known as the first watch in history to be designed with the active participation of both astronauts and pilots from around the world. What remains, however, is the Speedmaster’s storied look. An appearance that’s iconic in its history and historical in its application. One that’s thankfully changed little over the last several decades, supporting the notion that attempting to perfect perfection is a fool’s errand if nothing else.
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