Lift Off: A Short History of Watches in Space
Space flight is easily the most demanding test a watch can experience. The honor of being designated a “space watch” is one that we do not take lightly. On the trip to and from space, the watch is subjected to intense pressures and temperatures. During the rocket’s liftoff and the capsule re-entry, the gravitational forces are six times greater than earths, and if the astronaut leaves the spacecraft then the watch will have to contend with the sudden and severe change in pressure caused by leaving a pressurized cabin and entering into a vacuum. Space watches must also be able to withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations of outer space which range from -160 to +120 degrees C. Because of this Astronauts (U.S) are required to wear official space mission watches that have passed NASA’s stringent testing.
The First Watch on the Moon
The Omega Speedmaster is one iconic space watch, prized the world over for its beauty, precision, and iconic legacy. The Speedmaster first took flight in October 1962 when Wally Schirra orbited the Earth six times aboard the Sigma 7 space module. Ever since then, the Omega Speedmaster has had a continuous role in space flights with NASA. No one was able to unseat Omega as the brand of choice for space exploration, until the Swiss watchmaker Bulova competed with Omega for a chance of becoming the first watch on the moon. Although Bulova did lose the bid – they did ultimately succeed in having their electric Accutron watch movement chosen to be used in all the spacecrafts instrument panel clocks and time keeping mechanisms for missions in the 60’s and 70’s. Nasa made this choice because at that time they were still unsure about how well a normal mechanical movement would function in zero gravity and the Accutron watch movement was the first electronic movement. Bulova still continues to manufacture a limited edition “Astronaut” model in its Accutron line and the watch case has a Buzz Aldrin autograph, the tuning fork movement however has long since been discontinued.
The Omega Speedmaster finally became the first watch to be worn on the moon when Buzz Aldrin famously landed there in 1969. Remarkably it was the only piece of equipment that wasnt specially made for use on space misions. Early in the 1960’s a NASA employee anonymously bought a selection of potential space watches. These were chronographs by the most well known watch brands at that time including Longines, Rolex, Bulova, Hamilton, Elgin, Benrus, Gruen, Lucian Piccard, Mido and Omega. Of all the watches NASA tested, the Omega Speedmaster was the only one to pass.
The original mechanically powered Speedmaster has since been replaced by the newer quartz driven X-33 for space missions which can also display GMT time which is important because it is used as the basis of timing for all space missions. As well as the latest Omega Speedmaster X-33 NASA has also granted the status of official space watches to Casio’s G-Shock and Timex’s Ironman watches.
The First Watch in Space
Although the Speedmaster was the first watch on the moon it wasn’t the first into space. That distinction goes to Yuri Gagarin’s Pobeda brand Shturmanskie (Navigator’s) watch that he wore when he piloted the Vostok One and became the first man in space on April 12th 1961. After Gagarin’s flight the Soviet government changed the brand name to “Poljot” meaning “Flight”. The Shturmanskie was an understandable choice given its high quality and accuracy, it was the watch traditionally issued to graduates of the esteemed Orenberg Flight School. Though the one issued to Gagarin was a slightly modified version with a seconds hand and hacking function so that it could be synchronized, a crucial feature for a navigators watch.
When Scott Carpenter wore his Breitling Navitimer on the Aurora 7 Mission in May 1962 it was the first known watch worn by an American in space. This was the first watch used in Space featuring a 24 hour display which was useful since an astronauts day was no longer affected by the rising and setting of the sun but rather by his working and sleeping patterns. The first Swiss timepiece to shrug off the surly bonds of earth was a Heuer stopwatch worn by John Glenn when he became the first American to orbit the planet on 20 February 1962 on the Friendship 7 mission. TAG Heuer is understandably proud but is conscientious in describing itself as the first Swiss watchmaker in space, not the first Swiss watch.
In 1965 Alexi Leonov left the safety of his Spacecraft for the first space walk, the Strela chronograph became the first watch to be worn in outer space.
Houston we have a problem.
These words marked the beginning of what was to become one of the most dramatic events in the history of space travel and also gave the Speedmaster an opportunity to play a crucial role. On the way to the moon at a distance of 200,000 miles, Apollo 13 suffered an electrical fault which caused one of the two oxygen tanks to explode resulting in the loss of oxygen as well as electrical power. Because of this there was no onboard timing system needed to time the firing of the rockets and critical for a successful return to earth.
Depending on what source you read, either The Speedmaster or a Rolex GMT master was used to time these critical rocket burns and aid in the successful return to earth. According to James Dowling & Jeff Hess’ in their book “Rolex Wristwatches” it was a Rolex GMT that Jack Swigert depended upon. However Chuck Maddox who has done exhaustive research on the subject believes it was the Speedmaster.
Even if it wasn’t the Rolex, the GMT Master was still around, worn by Ron Evans, Mission Command Module Pilot of Apollo XVII and Ed Mitchell of the Apollo XIV mission on the moon. Not only does the Rolex GMT Master have some impressive space credentials but the GMT Master was also worn by Chuck Yeager when he was the first person to pilot a fixed wing plane to the speed of sound, when no one knew whether a plane, let alone a human, could survive such a maneuver.
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