How the Omega Speedmaster won the space race

Written by Simone | 19th July 2019

Besides the 20th-century ‘space race’ between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union, another race was taking place: the battle of the watches. Berry Harleman, watch expert at Catawiki and Omega-enthusiast, helps us in understanding why the model is still so beloved today.  

On 25th May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his goal to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. On the moon, one day lasts 28,5 Earth days and the day-night cycle is very different. It’s easy to lose track of time, so watches are really important, for example, to determine when to sleep. But, in order to survive in outer space, a watch needs to be pretty robust. 

NASA aerospace engineer and flight hardware expert, James H. Ragan, was commissioned to write a list of specifications, test potential watches and select the winning models. A request was sent out for a proposal to watch companies, but without any context on how the watches would be used. Watchmakers selected to compete in the race were: Rolex, Hamilton and, of course, Omega.

Omega Speedmaster (Shutterstock.com)

Let the battle begin

All the competitors were chronograph watches, which at that time was the only type of watch that could accurately gauge length of time with a stopwatch-like functionality. This was very important for test pilots because it allowed them to gauge fuel consumption and, if necessary, to navigate their heading and airspeed. 

To win the race, the watches had to pass all ten tests that simulated extreme conditions regarding temperature (from -18 °C to 93 °C), humidity, oxygen levels, shock, linear acceleration, extreme pressure levels, vibration and acoustic noise. All models were also tested under zero gravity and tested by astronauts aboard a Gemini space flight. 

The clear winner was the Omega Speedmaster, which passed all of the tests, whilst Rolex and Hamilton failed to complete the first two. Omega was officially ‘flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions’ on 1st March 1965. NASA initially bought only 15 to 20 Speedmasters. It was one of the only pieces of equipment not manufactured specifically for use in space by NASA itself. 

Three weeks later, the watch would accompany Virgil Grissom and John Young as official equipment aboard Gemini 3, although the watch had technically already flown in space twice on Project Mercury missions, as privately owned watches.

The moment of truth

The Speedmaster was really put to the test on 3rd June 1965, when the watch was exposed to the near-vacuum conditions and extreme temperatures of outer space when astronaut Edward H. White wore his chronograph over the sleeve of his spacesuit during a spacewalk.

Astronaut Edward H. White II floats in space on 3rd June 1965 wearing the Omega Speedmaster. (NASA)

The temperature on the side of the ship exposed to the sun could climb up to 100 °C, whilst on the other side, it could plummet to approximately -100°C. A special case was developed to protect the watch from extreme temperature variations and dials coated with zinc oxide to provide the highest resistance to solar radiation. These prototypes proved to be unnecessary; the Speedmaster withstood the extreme temperatures without modifications.

The Omega Speedmaster even played a part in saving the lives of Apollo 13’s astronauts. In 1970 Apollo 13 was the third mission intended to land on the moon, but two days after launching, the oxygen tank exploded and the mission had to be aborted. Despite the compromised spacecraft with limited power, loss of cabin heat, loss of potable water and the critical need to make makeshift repairs to the carbon dioxide removal system; the crew returned safely to Earth six days after launch.

Thanks to the Omega Speedmaster, the astronauts were able to time the 14-second burn of fuel that was necessary to manually adjust the course, as the clock on board didn’t work. And don’t forget that, originally, the Speedmaster wasn’t even designed for space travel. In fact, Omega didn’t even know their watches were being used by NASA. “Initially, the watch was produced for the racing world, hence the tachymeter scale on the bezel. This scale can be used for calculating time into speed and distance”, explains watch expert Berry Harleman. 

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, during the lunar landing mission on July 20th 1969. (NASA)

July 1969 saw the Omega Speedmaster became the first watch on the Moon. Fifty years later, the watch remains an icon for its durability and elegance. And it’s actually one of Berry’s favourite watches: “The great story behind the watch and the classical and timeless looks make this watch a must-have for every collector. The looks of the watch are timeless and have never been changed; only small details were added. The Speedmaster is truly the master of space and time.” 


Discover more: Omega | Moonwatch | watches

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