When the Omega Speedmaster watch was introduced in 1957, no one could have imagined that it would be at the forefront of space travel and accompany the very first space pioneers to the Moon.
The Omega Speedmaster
Therefore, its not an exaggeration to say that for mankind, The Omega Speedmaster Professional or “Moonwatch” as it is more fondly known, is a very special and historically significant timepiece.
WHO WORE IT?
Let’s clear one thing up though – Buzz Aldrin and not Neil Armstrong was the first person to wear an Omega Speedmaster on the Moon. Neil Armstrong, the first person to step on the moon, had left his Omega aboard the Lunar Module as a mechanical backup for one of the spaceship’s electronic timekeeping systems that had malfunctioned. Neil Armstrong said, “Our mission timer was out, and we decided we had better leave one wristwatch inside in case it (the one taken outside) got damaged. We would have at least one working watch to back up the mission timer or to use in place of the mission timer, in case we could not get it going again.”
Buzz Aldrin (right)
THE RACE TO THE MOON
The fascinating story of how the Omega Speedmaster Professional became the Moonwatch starts on October 4th 1957 when to the Americans’ surprise the then Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1. The US were shocked and had been caught cold, with the US President at the time Dwight D. Eisenhower coining the term “sputnik crisis” in response to Russia’s success.
In the same year, in Neuchatel, Switzerland, Omega had begun work on developing a new watch that would confirm Omega’s standing for events timing including the Olympic Games. For such an occasion only a sports chronograph with a tachymeter bezel for calculating speed would suffice.
So how did the Speedmaster become the first watch to the Moon? At this point there is some conjecture. In 1962, following Kennedy’s inaugural promise to make an American the first man on the Moon, it was rumoured that NASA’s head of operations, Donald “Deke” Slayton asked two anonymous NASA official to choose a selection of watches from a jeweller, Corrigan’s.
Kennedy made it a priority to get to the Moon first
However, James Ragan a former NASA engineer responsible for Apollo flight hardware testing, has downplayed this story, calling it a “complete invention”.
A plate from Corrigan’s
Instead, bids were officially solicited of several brands: Elgin, Benrus, Hamilton, Mido, Piccard, Omega, Bulova, Rolex, Longines-Wittnauer and Gruen. Hamilton submitted a pocket watch and was disqualified from consideration, leaving three contenders: Rolex, Longines-Wittnauer, and Omega.
James Ragan (left)
THE REMAINING TRIALS
These last three contenders were put through gruelling tests that man himself would find hard to survive. They were:
1. High temperature test of 48 hours at 71 degrees celsius followed by 30 minutes at 93 degrees celsius.
2. Low temperature test for 4 hours at -18 degrees celsius
3. Vacuum test at differing high and lower temperatures
4. Humidity test with 240 hours spent at 95% humidity was variety of temperatures and pH values
5. Six 40G shocks in 6 different directions.
6. Acceleration test from 1g to 7.25g in 333 seconds
7. Decompression test at a variety of temperatures
8. High pressure test at 1.6ATM for an hour.
9. Vibrating test of 3 x30 minute of varying frequency at an average 8.8g per impulse
THE WINNER IS…
Alexey Leonov EVA
The race to the Moon accelerated when Russia successfully achieved the first EVA (extra vehicular activity). Alexey Leonov had spent a full twelve minutes outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft, successfully completing the world’s first spacewalk. It was later revealed that Leonov had experienced huge difficultly operating in the weightless conditions as his suit had ballooned under its own pressure, hindering his re-entry to the capsule. He risked his life getting back in, not only from reducing the pressure of his suit to fit, but also from overheating in the vacuum of space. Russia did not attempt another EVA for four years.
As far as NASA was concerned, the race was well and truly on. A watch needed to be selected from the trio, and fast. The tests had been conclusive. The Rolex Daytona had stopped running during the relative humidity test and in the pressure test, while the Longines-Wittnauer’s watchglass had warped and detached during the high pressure and decompression tests. The Omega Speedmaster Professional suffered only a timing error during the decompression test and acceleration test, by far the best result of all the watches and in 1965 NASA decided that Omega would be the only watch brand approved for manned space flights.
THE SPEEDMASTER BECOMES THE MOONWATCH
Wally Schirra’s watch was an Omega Speedmaster
And if anyone doubted that the Omega Speedmaster was destined to be amongst the stars, it turned out that their decision to select an Omega’s sports watch wasn’t a unique one; three years earlier in 1962 the astronaut Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra had worn his own watch as a backup for the clock on board his Sigma 7 spacecraft. He had found it to perform faultlessly, even enjoying it nearly as much as the steak sandwich stowed aboard by friend and fellow astronaut Leroy Gordon ‘Gordo’ Cooper. That particular watch in question had been the Omega Speedmaster.
Ed White performing EVA
By the end of 1965, NASA had chosen the Omega Speedmaster as the official watch of the Gemini missions, where it joined Ed White as he became the first American to perform an EVA during the Gemini 4 mission. He and the other astronauts on board actually wore two, one set to mission time and the other to Houston time.
Interestingly, they hadn’t told Omega that their watch had triumphed above all others. The brand only learned that the Speedmaster had been selected for use in space after seeing a photo of Ed White wearing the watch during his first spacewalk.
To be continued…