There are events, like summer movies that are wildly enjoyable yet inherently disposable, and then there are Events – one-shot occasions. The Singapore Bicentennial this year is one, and so was the Astronaut Appreciation Dinner in Houston, the USA in 1969. This was organized by Omega for 19 NASA astronauts, and is known in the watch community for the attendant special edition Speedmaster, reference BA145.022. The dinner was a celebration of the successful Apollo 11 mission, a unique moment in our collective history that will resound forever.
As a partner to the manned space programme, the Omega Speedmaster too has achieved a measure of immortality. The special timepiece at that dinner in 1969 was an effort to mark this singular achievement. Reference BA145.022 was the first commemorative numbered edition from the watchmaker, limited to just 1,014 pieces in yellow gold. Obviously, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins received one, but so did three other astronauts who were at the dinner only in spirit – we’ll be taking a moment to remember them in this story.
This famous dinner came to mind at the local celebration for the anniversary of the moon landing, where there was a lovely Speedmaster with a burgundy bezel on display (that was not the new limited edition Moonwatch). The burgundy bezel distinguishes both reference BA145.022 and that new limited edition in the all-new MoonshineTM gold, though not the steel version (which is also a limited edition). Needless to say, in the wake of #SpeedyTuesday two years ago, both limited edition Moonwatch Speedmasters are sold out. Returning to the burgundy bezel at the event, while the overall lighting turned everything a shade of red, it certainly reminded us that there are all sorts of Speedmasters worth having, including ones we don’t know well enough. But we digress…
In 2017, Omega invited the world to celebrate the 60th birthday of the iconic Omega Speedmaster. It was an important event, perhaps even foreshadowing the current unprecedented demand for mechanical steel sports watches of all types. This year, the world is quite naturally celebrating the actual moon landings, with the words of US President John F. Kennedy reverberating everywhere once again. “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this deade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.” By extension of course, Omega chose to be a part of the US space programme because it was hard.
This is not at all the whole picture, any more than Kennedy’s announcement was simply about doing the improbable. Experts today agree that were it not for the Cold War, no one would have gone to the moon at that time. NASA spent US$25.4 billion (more than US$150 billion in today’s dollars) on the space programme from Kennedy’s famous speech to Congress in 1961 to the actual lunar mission in 1969. By any measure, that’s an insane amount of money to throw at a problem, in a ridiculously abbreviated period of time. In a nutshell, that’s where the term ‘moonshot’ comes from and it is used blithely today by all manner of corporates for difficult projects with lofty goals.
So, if a watch brand aspired to make it to Mars as part of some future mission, it might well be called a ‘moonshot,’ incongruity aside. “In regards to Mars, our Speedmasters are still qualified by NASA for missions in space. And they are still being worn there right now!” said Omega CEO Raynald Aeschlimann. “So if there are plans to go to Mars, that’s something that will be decided by the space agencies themselves.” Clearly, Omega’s spacefaring efforts, well-documented as they are, are more complicated than mere catchphrases while also being more natural.
In the 1950s, Omega was certainly not on a mission to surmount the insurmountable. This was the period that gave rise to the Speedmaster in 1957, and the watch was clearly designed for terrestrial pursuits; it wasn’t even one of the new-fangled pilot’s watches (that would be the Flightmaster in 1969). That said, a variety of sources report that astronaut Walter Schirra wore his personal Speedmaster into space on the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1962, making the Speedmaster CK 2998 the first Omega in space. That first series of Speedmasters was powered by the now-famous Lemania 321 movement – Omega owned Lemania at the time – designed by Albert Piguet, with a case designed by Pierre Moinat.
(Editor’s Note- As we reported in #52, this piece of history is back in production, but there is still no word on what watches Omega plans to power with the new version. There are also no details on upgrades to the original calibre 321.
Returning now to the Speedmaster of 1957, it was most certainly not designed for use in space, even though the year it was launched coincided with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1; no one in the western world anticipated that momentous first satellite. No, the tachymetre scale on the Speedmaster’s bezel tells us clearly enough, as if the name didn’t, that this chronograph was made for petrolheads. Crucially, the watch was also built tough, marking the first time a chronograph wristwatch was built to withstand rigorous challenges – including surviving 40 Gs of force and temperatures between -18 degrees C to 93 degrees C. The function that allowed drivers to time their laps was eventually used by astronauts to record their time on the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin famously spent a total of 2 hours and 36 minutes on that historic first moonwalk.
Watch historians and Omega itself have speculated that it was these characteristics, more specifically the toughness part, that allowed the Speedmaster to make it into the space programme. Piguet and Moinat are just two of the people who should be remembered for making a watch tough enough to withstand the rigors of space and indeed the rigors of NASA’s stress tests! It was certainly not all plain sailing, nor was it without great cost.
The story of the Moon landing, triumphant as it was, has overshadowed both the overall narrative of early space exploration – the Mercury and Gemini missions – and the development of the Speedmaster watch in general. Two years ago, we revisited the Speedmaster model itself because it was the 60th anniversary of the famous chronograph (see issue #44). This year, we properly commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission, which of course has come to define the Speedmaster. People forget that space was not merely a frontier to be conquered but a potential battlefield, and the competing space programmes of the USA and the Soviet Union were not merely prestige projects. This explains the appetite in both countries for such expensive undertakings. There was real danger here, and Omega was right in the thick of it.
Triumph In Tragedy
For this reason, in the midst of celebrating the moon landing, it is important to take a moment to remember the tragic Apollo 1 mission. Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were NASA’s A-team, with both Command Pilot Grissom and Senior Pilot White already having achieved milestones for the US and humanity as part of the Mercury and Gemini missions. For Pilot Chaffee, Apollo 1 was to be his first mission to space.
Scheduled to launch February 21, 1967, Apollo 1 never made it off the ground. During a dress rehearsal at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex for the mission January 27, a catastrophic cabin fire killed all three astronauts. For the US and the world, it was a stark reminder that travelling to space was terribly risky. These were the three astronauts honoured, posthumously with special edition Speedmasters at the 1969 dinner. Omega-lovers might recall that White was the first US person to take a walk out in space, with Speedmaster in tow – a point we’ll return to.
On April 27, 1967, the Soviet space programme experienced its own tragedy when cosmonaut colonel Vladimir Komarov was killed as the Soyuz 1 craft attempted to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. This was the first in-flight fatality of any space programme, and is widely thought to have ended the Soviet Union’s plans to land on the moon. There is a memorial to Komarov, Grissom, White, Chaffee and others who perished in the space race in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon, placed there by astronaut David Scott. Speaking of whom…
Another lesser-known event was the Gemini 8 mission on March 16, 1966, which was the 12th crewed American space flight. It performed the first-ever docking of two spacecraft in orbit, but was forced to abort the rest of the mission due to critical systems failures. The two-man crew made it back to earth safely that time, and both eventually made it to the moon. Armstrong and Scott were the lucky survivors. Of course, the more famous story is that of Apollo 13, and the Omega Speedmaster had a role to play there, but more on that on another occasion.
By 1967, Omega watches were well and truly a part of the US space programme. Omega’s space odyssey began with NASA and was entirely at the space agency’s independent initiative. Historians note that NASA declared the Omega Speedmaster as its official timekeeper (Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions) on March 1, 1965, ahead of the Gemini 4 launch that would propel White into the history books.
As previously reported, there’s another apocryphal story, well known among watch fans and collectors, that Omega only learned that the Speedmaster had been making trips to space when the firm’s executives or watchmakers saw a photograph of White taking the US’s first spacewalk in 1965. As enticing as this fated-for-space narrative is, NASA doesn’t work that way, and Omega began offering an official explanation in the last few years. NASA Assistant Director of Flights Deke Slayton sent out an official and open request to watch firms notifying them that the space agency was on the lookout for chronographs. It fell to engineer James Ragan to come up with the battery of tests that would eventually lead to the coronation of the Omega Speedmaster.
“The watch was a critical backup. If the astronauts lost the capability of talking to the ground, or the capability of their digital timers on the lunar surface, the only thing they had to rely on would be the watches they had on. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem,” said Ragan. This quote has to do with getting to the moon, but it should be remembered that the watch went to space on all the manned missions, at least from 1965, and some from before. Ragan was responsible for assigning watches to the astronauts before their missions.
Ragan, who has been shedding light on his role lately, demonstrates that the legend of Apollo 11 goes beyond the astronauts themselves – no one thinks they built the rockets or launched themselves into space after all. As far as the Omega Speedmaster goes, it is so much more fulfilling that a human being was decisive here, rather than the bland old hand of fate.
Ragan was in charge of all watches from Gemini through most of the space shuttle years. Six months to a year prior to a spaceflight, he gave the astronauts Omega chronographs so they could get used to wearing them. After the missions, they were supposed to give the watches back, but by that time the astronauts considered them personal possessions. Slayton put a stop to that practice, reportedly threatening to restrict the astronauts from active duty until they returned the watches. The Smithsonian reports that every single one did.
So, it was Ragan who assigned watches to astronauts, and collected them for maintenance – even though the astronauts always wanted to fly with the same watch. It was also Ragan who sent every single watch that went into space to the Smithsonian. Indeed, Air&Space magazine notes that NASA donated more than 50 watches to the National Air and Space Museum, where astronaut Michael Collins served as director after he retired from active service. Seven of these are listed as lost or stolen, including the most famous one, Buzz Aldrin’s.
That was another reason the commemorative gold watches might have been useful to the 19 astronauts who received them in 1969 – as a tangible link to another world. Eventually, more astronauts received these pieces, with Omega recording that Numbers 3-28 and 1001-1008 were gifted to serving NASA astronauts. Interestingly, some models – with a different caseback inscription – were offered to the public, where they probably performed the same function as they did for the astronauts, albeit vicariously.
From 1957, right through the space mission, Omega used the manual-winding Lemania Calibre 321, with column wheel and horizontal clutch. In 1968, Omega switched out the Calibre 321 for Calibre 861, an arguably even tougher movement as it used the cam-lever system instead of the column wheel, something a collector once called “virtually indestructible”. In 1996, Omega reportedly upgraded calibre 861 to calibre 1861. This one was rhodium-plated but otherwise maintained the characteristics of its predecessor.
In 2019, Omega announced an upgrade for calibre 1861 – calibre 3861. The 21,600 vph frequency of the calibre remains unchanged from the 861 but it now sports the Omega Co-Axial escapement, the Si14 balance spring, and the balance is now free-sprung. To accommodate this change, the movement now has 26 jewels, up from 18. As a result of these updates – which Omega has brought to most other collections – the watch is now certified as a Master Chronometer. This movement powers the limited edition Moonwatch Speedmasters this year. More details will filter through about this movement in the issues to come.