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.
From top: 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; the Apollo 11-era Moonwatch.
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?
Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin guides Apollo 11’s Lunar Module, taking himself and Cmdr. Neil Armstrong from the lunar surface to rendezvous with the orbiting Command Module piloted by Michael Collins to begin the crew’s historic voyage home.
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”).
The highlight reel for the Speedmaster in space includes being worn by Ed White on NASA’s first EVA spacewalk during Gemini 4 in 1965, and, of course, the Apollo 11 moon landing. But, arguably the most dramatic chapter of the Omega-NASA story occurred during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970. En route to the moon, an oxygen tank ruptured, severely disabling the spacecraft. The decision was made to return home, with first priority being to jury-rig a filtration scheme so the crew had enough breathable air for the flight back. That problem quashed, the Apollo 13 crew quickly discovered another critical issue. The spacecraft was essentially flying “dead” with only the most necessary electronic equipment still working. Without a flight computer, they were challenged to manually orient the capsule for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Too extreme an angle, the heat shield might not be enough to protect the crew; too oblique an angle, the capsule would bounce off the atmosphere and back into space. Cmdr. Jim Lovell and pilot Fred Haise used pilot Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster to time the thruster burns to produce the ideal angle, and all crew safely arrived back on Earth. That watch and its rugged precision, literally, helped save their lives.
Omega has issued several special timepieces around its involvement with the moon landing and space program. Here are some highlights.
Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Moonshine Limited Edition
As the story goes, Omega produced a special 18K yellow gold watch to commemorate the moon landing for an event in Houston in 1969. Limited to 1,014 pieces, numbers 3 through 28 were given to the astronauts currently serving. This year’s commemorative timepiece, again in only 1,014 editions, is a faithful reproduction of that historic watch. Wrought in a special Moonshine gold alloy that is paler than yellow gold and more resistant to color and luster fading, the modern 42 mm timepiece ($34,600, shown at left) sports a new 3861 handwound calibre—the first handwound movement to meet Omega’s exacting Master Chronometer specification—and a 50-hour power reserve. Other special details include a bold burgundy ceramic front bezel and special engraving on the case back bezel that features a small slice of meteorite.
Speedmaster Grey Side of the Moon Meteorite
Adorned with 18K Sedna gold details with a dial wrought from slices of the Gibeon meteorite that struck what is now Namibia in prehistoric times, the Grey Side of the Moon Meteorite special edition ($15,600, shown at center) offers a way to wear not only a piece of history, but also a piece of space. The variegated metallic look of the meteorite dial, which is unique to every piece, is echoed by the clean gray 44.25 mm ceramic case and subdued gray leather strap. The timepiece is powered by the Omega coaxial calibre 9300 movement, which is visible through the case back.
Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon Apollo 8
Honoring the crew of Apollo 8, who were the first people to view the dark side of the moon with their own eyes, this stunning all-black ceramic Speedmaster ($12,000, shown at right) evokes the mystery and allure of space travel. Powered by Omega’s coaxial calibre 9300 movement, the 44.25 mm timepiece has bright, legible 18K white gold hands; chronograph subdials at 3 and 9 o’clock; a polished black ceramic bezel with a tachymetric scale; and a treated black fabric strap. The details and bold colorway stylishly bring the Moonwatch into the 21st century.
Speedmaster White Side of the Moon
White as pure moonlight on a crisp terrestrial night, the White Side of the Moon timepiece’s ($12,000, shown at right) clean design language is only broken by dark indicators for legibility and subtle pops of red, making it one of the more fashionable choices for a Moonwatch. The brushed and polished 44.25 mm white ceramic case is enhanced by a white ceramic bezel and matte chromium nitride tachymeter scale. A perfect combination of technical appeal and style, the White Side also sports the coaxial calibre 9300 movement with its integrated chronograph function.
Speedmaster MoonWatch Professional Chronograph
This is it! The official modern Moonwatch ($5,350, shown at left) issued to all current flight crews for the U.S. and Russia, and members of the International Space Station. Driven by the modern 1861 handwound movement, this steel watch beats with virtually the same technical heart of the originals worn by the Apollo crews. A 48-hour power reserve is another nod to modernity, and the case back of the 42 mm timepiece carries special engraving referring to its “flight-qualified” nature. The timepiece comes with an astronaut-issue NATO fabric strap, as well as a tool to change out the strap and bracelet. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.
Omega and NASA feted the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with a multistage extravaganza at the Apollo/Saturn V facility at Kennedy Space Center that brought out A-listers, former astronauts and watch fans alike: (clockwise from left) A celebratory banquet was held in the voluminous hanger directly under a suspended, full-size Saturn V rocket; actors in flight suits and vintage newspapers ran through a piece of atmospheric performance art in the bleachers of the space center’s flight control facility; Omega President and CEO Raynald Aeschlimann and actor/unmitigated NASA fan George Clooney dined together and co-hosted the event.