The source of many a myth and legend, the OMEGA Speedmaster has been the choice of astronauts and space agencies for nearly half a century. This “common” object has become the most famous watch in the world and has been associated with the entirety of humankind's half century of space faring, thus earning it the name “The Moonwatch”.
OMEGA's history with space exploration began sometime in the autumn of 1962 when a group of astronauts including Walter Schirra and Leroy “Gordo” Cooper went into a watch shop in Houston, Texas and bought Speedmaster watches to use on the upcoming Mercury program flights. Two and a half years later and after a series of what can only be described as radical, extreme and exceptionally brutal tests, the choice of the Mercury astronauts became the choice of NASA.
It was at the end of the Mercury program that the astronauts approached the Operations Director, Deke Slayton, and asked to be issued with a watch for use during training and eventually flight. This request was met with enthusiasm and as every piece of equipment from the Mercury program was being re-evaluated and re-designed for the upcoming Gemini and Apollo programs, the timing could not have been better. NASA had just employed a large group of engineers to test, select and certify equipment to be used by the astronauts.
On the 21of September, 1964, Slayton issued an internal memo stating the need for a “highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and aapollo flight crews”. This memo landed on the desk of engineer James Ragan who was no newcomer to finding equipment for hostile environments. He had been the engineer responsible for testing equipment for the US Navy's “SEA LAB” program. Eight days later a “Request for Quotations” for twelve watches – two watches each from six different manufacturers - was sent out. OMEGA's copy of the Request was received by its U. S. affiliate in New York. Of the six brands contacted, only four responded so Ragan asked each to supply three watches.
The tests which ensued were designed literally to test the watches to destruction. The watches were subjected to temperatures ranging from 71° to 93° centigrade over a two day period, after which they were frozen to -18° centigrade. They were placed in a vacuumed chamber heated to 93° centigrade, and then subjected to a test where they were heated to 70° centigrade and then immediately frozen to -18° centigrade – not once but fifteen times in rapid succession! When this had been completed, it was time to subject the watches to 40 g shocks in six different directions, then submit them to high and low pressures, an atmosphere of 93% humidity, a highly corrosive 100% oxygen environment, noise to 130 decibels and finally vibrated with average accelerations of 8.8 g. In the end only one watch had survived: the Speedmaster. Interestingly, after each test the watch would settle to an average rate which was largely within the NASA imposed limits of five seconds per day during normal use.
The result of this was the “Speedmaster” reference ST105.003 being declared “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on the 1st of March 1965. Just three weeks later, on the 23rdof March, the Speedmaster went into space officially for the first time on the wrists of Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young during their Gemini 3 mission. The only modification to the watches was the addition of a long Velcro strap that replaced the standard steel bracelet which could not be worn over the space suit. Later that year Edward White wore his Speedmaster on America's first space walk and shortly afterward, OMEGA's management took the decision to add the term “Professional” to the dial of the reference ST105.012 Speedmaster.
Another four years passed and the Americans were preparing for the first lunar landing. The crew had been selected and the decision was made that Neil Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the moon's surface. NASA had, by this point, adopted the ST105.012 and ST145.012 Speedmasters due to their more robust cases for the Apollo program; however, many astronauts were still using the ST105.003.
On the 21stof July 1969 at 2:56 GMT, Neil Armstrong stepped off the Eagle to become the first human to stand on another world. However, the on-board clock was working intermittently so Armstrong had left his Speedmaster on the Eagle as a backup.
It wasn’t until roughly fifteen minutes later, when Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon's surface, that the Speedmaster Professional became the first watch to be worn on the Moon.
The next great moment for the Speedmaster in space came in 1970 with the Apollo 13 mission, when the watch was used to time the critical engine burns needed to ensure that the re-entry trajectory of the heavily damaged craft were correct. The smallest error would have meant that the capsule would either have bounced off of or burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere on re-entry. For The Speedmaster Professional's role in the safe re-entry, the astronauts gave OMEGA the “Manned Flight Awareness Award” or Snoopy Award as it is commonly known.
At the same time, OMEGA was working on creating the perfect space watch, dubbed the Alaska Project. The project's first watch was also the first watch in history with a polished titanium case. Omega would go on to produce two further prototype watches which were proposed to NASA who refused them as the Speedmaster had proven to be perfect for their requirements. A fourth version, the ALASKA II, was proposed in 1972 and did interest the engineers of NASA; however, by this time, the remaining flights to the moon, Apollo 18-22, had been cancelled. As a result, on December 17th1972 at 21:33.24 GMT, Eugene “Gene” Cernan, with his Speedmaster reference ST105.003 on his wrist, became the last man on the Moon. Ironically the first watch on the moon was the last adopted by NASA during the Apollo program and the last watch on the moon was one of the first delivered to NASA after certification in 1965.
The next step in the story was to come the following year when the Apollo-Soyuz mission was being planned. This was to be the first time that the American and Soviet space agencies would work together and in many ways, it signalled the end of the "space race". It was at this point that OMEGA discovered that the cosmonauts were using the Flightmaster. They adopted the Speedmaster for the mission when an “OMEGA” representative told them that “if they wanted to be on time with the Americans they should wear the same watch”. On the flight there were a total of ten watches used, all of which were Speedmasters; however, Tom Stafford wore the 18 Ct yellow gold Speedmaster Deluxe he had received after the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. All the other watches worn by the astronauts were the standard NASA issue watches equipped with 321 calibre while all the cosmonauts wore the newer ST145.022 with 861 calibre.
From this point the cosmonauts wore Speedmaster on their missions including on the Salyut Space Station. A notable exception to this was Speedmaster 125 worn by Vladimir Djanibekov in 1978 on his Salyut 6 mission.
The next step in the Speedmaster's journey came in 1978 with the Space Shuttle. With the new craft came the need for all equipment to be retested; accordingly, OMEGA submitted three different watches for certification, The Speedmaster Professional reference ST 145.022, the Speedsonic Reference ST188.0002, and a prototype Speedmaster automatic “ALASKA III”, reference 11003. This watch would later be slightly redesigned and used by FIFA referees as reference 11003-2.Unsurprisingly, all three watches survived the testing. The final choice, though, would be the Speedmaster Professional, which was certified again in 1978 for all manned space flights.
The next year OMEGA created a new prototype the “Alaska IV” based on the Speedmaster Professional Quartz reference ST186.0004 with a calibre 1621 movement which used a system called the BETA light that consisted of two tritium tubes behind the LCD display to illuminate the display. Twelve examples were sent to NASA astronauts who tested the watch in training and on the Space Shuttle. Ultimately, they chose not to adopt the watch.
In the 1980s another project was launched under the code name “Condor” to create a multi-screen watch for NASA. While this, too, was later abandoned, images of astronauts wearing the watch on the Space Shuttle still exist.
At the end of the 1980s came the launch of the MIR space station and again the Speedmaster was the choice of the cosmonauts. By this time OMEGA had established a close relationship with COSMOS and arranged to have two series of Speedmasters sent to the space station to test the long term effects of micro gravity on the oils and springs in the watches. The first time was from December 1990 through March 1991 for a total of 90 days and then later in July of 1993 for one year. On both occasions when the watches were returned and controlled, they were found to be in perfect working order at which point they received a basic service and were sold to the general public.
At the end of 1995 the decision was taken within the astronaut community that there was a need for a purpose-designed astronauts' watch. This was to be the birth of what would become the Speedmaster X-33. After two years of extensive testing by, astronauts, cosmonauts and elite military pilots, the watch was shown to the public via a live broadcast from the MIR space station through Houston Mission Control. Incredibly, this watch has a titanium case and multi-function movement reminiscent of the ideas proposed by OMEGA with the ALASKA I and ALASKA IV watches
Today the Speedmaster Professional and X-33 are still regular visitors to the International Space Station and after accompanying the American astronauts in all of their manned space programs and cosmonauts since 1973, the Speedmaster Professional remains the only watch certified by NASA for use on extra vehicular activity. In fact no other piece of equipment, let alone a watch, can claim to have been used during the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Soyuz, Salyut, Space Shuttle, Mir and International Space Station programs. Though affectionately known as the “Moonwatch”, one thing is clear: the Speedmaster Professional is without doubt the ultimate space watch.