Given the level of engineering and innovation that went into landing a man on the moon for the first time, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of electronic gadgetry for timing being built by NASA specifically for the occasion — namely, an in-house-designed unit aboard Apollo 11 to suit the needs of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
As expected, NASA engineers did just that — developing different timing devices to be fitted into both the command module and the lunar module of the Apollo spacecraft. But when it came to providing an added level of time keeping, they understood that the men at the helm were not engineers — they were ex-US Military and Air Force — whose faith had long rested on the side of mechanical robustness over newer technologies. As a result, NASA knew they needed a mechanical chronograph to match the rigors of space exploration.
It was the end of 1964 when NASA set out to decide on which watch on the market was officially competent enough for reliable use in space. The pool of competitors was narrowed down quickly. During our visit with NASA this past month, James Ragan — the man responsible for the testing protocols — shared a few anecdotes with us on the matter. First off, 10 brands were initially contacted and that list was promptly narrowed down to just four— Omega, Rolex, Longines, and Hamilton— and then three when Hamilton foolishly submitted a pocket watch instead of a wrist watch for consideration.
Acquiring five to six examples of each brand’s watches, they endured a barrage of tests which measured impact, vibration, heat, and other key stresses they would no doubt endure on their adventure into space. In this process, Ragan would compile his data set, and if there were a tie, he would use the astronauts’ input to make the final decision. Here’s where things get interesting.
According to Ragan, the competition was actually over after the first test. Running a “thermal vacuum test” — where the watches were subjected to a pendulum swing of high and low temperatures when in a vacuum — both the Longines and the Rolex failed. In the case of the Longines, its movement just stopped running. With the Rolex, the stresses from heat caused its watch hands to curve upwards — thus making contact with one another during rotation. As this test was “all or nothing,” this meant that Omega was the only option, which concerned Ragan should the astronauts actually prefer either of the other watches he’d proposed. Thankfully the Omega passed and came back as the fan favorite.
Since then, not only has the Speedmaster become the first watch on the moon, but it also has played (and continues to play) a legitimate role in all international space missions to date.
Remember the movie Apollo 13? Those controlled burns (among other things) needed to be timed with the shuttle running on next to no power whatsoever, meaning that timing these events had to be taken care of via their chronographs as well.
As time has gone on, Omega has remained the timing partner of NASA — as well as other space organizations globally. At time of writing, two of their watches are still standard issue. The current Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch is called into service for missions and activities outside of the shuttle (or of the International Space Station), whereas the digital Speedmaster X-33 is the go-to inside the station or shuttle.
Given that astronauts see several sunrises and sunsets over the course of a 24-hour period, a digital 24-hour time indication with multiple time zones (typically set to home time in Houston and Greenwich Mean Time) immediately comes in handy, as do its timing capabilities and rather loud alarm function.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing took and to celebrate Omega has unveiled a new timepiece commemorating the historic occasion. Limited to 6,969 pieces worldwide, the tasteful model features a laser-engraved image of Buzz Aldrin’s descent from the lunar lander in its running seconds subdial at nine o’clock.
The steel-cased watch is subdued in design, with accents in 18k Moonshine gold on its bezel, hands, and indices. The one surprise is that the watch is not powered by the caliber 321, which is Omega’s classic and much loved manually-wound movement that powered the first moonwatch, and was recently reintroduced by Omega with great fanfare. Instead, this new release is powered by the caliber 3861, which is still manually wound, and chronometer certified for accuracy.
Find out more about the Omega Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary at OmegaWatches.com.