Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch & The Space Race

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch & The Space Race

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch & The Space Race Feature Articles

The Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch is among the most famous historic watches of all times, and it still happens to be produced today. Here is some more of the "back-story" behind the iconic watch: Chances are that at some point today you’ve used a satellite. Whether TV, phone or internet, your digital footprint will have probably graced the heavens, tossed about by a network of delicate machines that shoot around the ball of rock we call home at over 18,000mph. But, 1,071 successful satellite launches ago, there wasn’t a single man-made device orbiting the Earth. Then, on October 4th, 1957, the starting pistol fired and the Space Race began.

The launch of the Soviet Sputnik 1 took US President Dwight D. Eisenhower by such surprise that he coined the term sputnik crisis in response to Russia’s success. But Sputnik wasn’t the only game-changing creation of 1957; the other was in Switzerland, in the shadow of the Neuchatel mountains: the birth of the Omega Speedmaster. To compliment Omega’s growing reputation for events timing (which included the Olympic Games) the Omega Speedmaster was designed as a sports chronograph with a tachymeter bezel for calculating speed. Little did Omega know what kind of velocities the Omega Speedmaster would have to endure.

The paths of NASA and Omega first crossed in 1962, following Kennedy’s inaugural promise to make an American the first man on the moon. Donald ‘Deke’ Slayton, NASA’s head of flight crew operations, had two anonymous NASA officials choose a selection of watches from a Houston jeweler, Corrigan’s, and alongside a Longines Wittnauer, a Rolex Daytona, plus seven others that didn’t make the cut, they picked out an Omega Speedmaster Professional.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch & The Space Race Feature Articles

In a blind twist of fate, their decision to select Omega’s sports watch wasn’t a unique one; in the same year, astronaut Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra wore one as a backup for the clock on board his Sigma 7 spacecraft. He found it to perform faultlessly, enjoying it nearly as much as the steak sandwich stowed aboard by friend and fellow astronaut Leroy Gordon ‘Gordo’ Cooper. But Slayton’s concern wasn’t of the watch merely being in space; on the moon, the variation in temperature between light and shade was expected to be between -160°C and +120°C, far removed from the relative comfort of Sigma 7’s cockpit. This consideration prompted a series of grueling tests designed to push the three finalists, the Rolex, Longines and Omega, to the breaking point.

The torture Slayton had in mind—unnervingly titled "Qualification Test Procedures"—was long, invasive, and thorough. It was 1965 when the tests were undertaken, and they included: a high temperature test of forty-eight hours at 71°C followed by thirty minutes at 93°C; a low temperature test of four hours at -18°C; a near-vacuum test, again at a mix of high and low temperatures; a humidity test, with 240 hours spent at 95% humidity in a variety of temperatures and pH values; a shock test with six brutal 40g shocks in six different directions; an acceleration test from 1g to 7.25g in 333 seconds; a decompression test at a variety of temperatures; a high pressure test at 1.6 ATM for an hour; a vibration test of three thirty minute cycles of varying frequency at an average 8.8g per impulse; and an acoustic test of 130db between 40Hz and 10,000Hz for thirty minutes.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch & The Space Race Feature Articles

That same year, more news from Soviet Russia shocked the US; on March 18th, Alexey Leonov had spent a full twelve minutes outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft, successfully completing the world’s first spacewalk (or EVA: Extra-Vehicular Activity). 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.

  • stefanv

    Where did you get your number of satellite launches from. The number seemed low to me, and according to http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/answers/980202e.html dated 1998, there have been about 4000 launches, some with multiple satellites. And of course there have been many more since then.

    Regarding risking his life getting back into the capsule, I think it would have been a bigger risk if he did not get back in. 🙂

    Finally, the Apollo 8 astronauts were not the first humans to see the dark side of the moon. We all see it every time we’re close to a new moon. However, they WERE the first humans to see the far side of the moon, which never faces Earth. But like the near side, it sees both day and night, in a cycle lasting about 28.5 days.

  • Gee, they wouldn’t even have to wait 20 years and they all could have just worn G-Shocks.
    In seriousness, I thought I knew this story, but there are a few morsels in here that I’ve either forgotten or never gleaned to begin with. Fun stuff.

  • Emperius

    Timeless design.

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  • Hacker4748

    “It was the first time any human had seen the dark side of the moon.”
    By the way, the Moon actually has no dark side.

  • Hacker4748  You should look at it sometime.

  • stefanv

    SuperStrapper Hacker4748  I think he meant it has no always-dark side (like, for example, Mercury does).

  • Hacker4748

    SuperStrapper
     Why didn’t the astronauts think of that? 😛

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  • rudorabe48

    Die Speedmaster ist schon etwas Besonderes. Ich trage meine seit 38 Jahren. Und nachdem sie nach der ersten Generalüberholung vor ca. einem Jahr nicht so genau ging wie davor, habe ich sie selbst geöffnet und justiert.
    Jetzt geht sie mit einer Genauigkeit von +/- 1 sec/Tag.
    Ein tolles Stück Handwerkskunst!!

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  • Jorge Robles

    I enjoy reading many of the articles and reviews from here. I myself am an amateur watchmaker whose favorite types of watches are divers and chronographs. Divers not because I dive but because they are very sturdy and strong and can resist a lot of physical and mechanical punishment, and chronographs because they are impressive works of Micro mechanics, in the field of time measurement. I am also an Omega fan, and own several Moonwatches from different years, and several other Omega Chronograps like the 125, some with caliber 1045/5100 and so on. But this article have an incorrect part that has been debunked by NASA itself in the words and comments of James Ragan, an engineer and former NASA official in charge of procurement and testing for all NASA equipment. Here I am including a portions of article from WikiPedia And Monochrome-Watches that tells what really happened with the selection of Omega as the sole purveyor of watches that were Flight Qualified for All Manned Space Missions, and quote:

    “.You’ve certainly heard about this legend: NASA knew about the Speedmaster that Wally Schirra strapped on his wrist during his first spaceflight (Mercury 8, October 3rd, 1962) – it was an Omega Speedmaster CK2998. Not too long after, a young NASA engineer furtively walked through a local watch dealer in Houston, Texas, and bought several “wrist chronographs” and used these retail watches as base for a test process. After 3 years of testing, in 1965, the Omega Speedmaster was the only watch that succeeded all tests, and became the official space watch. This might be a very nice story. But the truth is quite different (Even if another version of the story was already spread around the Omega collectors)

    NASA, a government organization, does not go out to a local store to buy equipment. Since it’s a governmental agency there are procedures, and of course there are procedure for the procurement of equipment. An important factor in that procedure is the letter of requirements. The procurement procedure was initiated by James H. Ragan (at the time a young engineer at NASA) and end of 1964, a request for quotations was sent to several watch brands. The request for quotations was accompanied by a specifications-sheet, with more details about what exactly NASA wanted to see. Only four brands answered: Longines (via Longines-Wittnauer USA), Omega (via their agent in New York, Norman M. Morris), Rolex (via Rolex USA) and Hamilton (then still an American company).

    After the four brands send in their watches, James H. Ragan performed the tests, which lasted for a few months only, from October 21st, 1964 to March 1st, 1965 to be precise, so a little longer than four months (not the three years that are frequently mentioned in other publications.) What is correctly mentioned in other publications is that only the Omega Speedmaster met all requirements and NASA declared it ‘operational for space exploration and flight certified’. The ‘Moonwatch‘ was born, but only after a complex and highly administrative process.

    More can be read in the introduction of the History of the Omega Speedmaster, at Watchtime Magazine too. That includes all the details of the ‘Qualification Test Procedures’ and of the selection process made by NASA’s James H. Ragan. These watches were all subjected to tests under extreme conditions:

    High temperature: 48 hours at 160 °F (71 °C) followed by 30 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C)
    Low temperature: Four hours at 0 °F (?18 °C)
    Temperature cycling in near-vacuum: Fifteen cycles of heating to 160 °F (71 °C) for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to 0 °F (?18 °C) for 45 minutes at 10?6 atm
    Humidity: 250 hours at temperatures between 68 °F (20 °C) and 160 °F (71 °C) at relative humidity of 95%
    Oxygen environment: 100% oxygen at 0.35 atm and 71 °C for 48 hours
    Shock: Six 11 ms 40 g shocks from different directions
    Linear acceleration: from 1 to 7.25 g within 333 seconds
    Low pressure: 90 minutes at 10?6 atm at 160 °F (71 °C), followed by 30 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C)
    High pressure: 1.6 atm for one hour
    Vibration: three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz with minimum 8.8 g impulse
    Acoustic noise: 30 minutes at 130 dB from 40 to 10,000 Hz
    All chronographs tested were mechanical hand-wound models. Neither the first automatic chronograph nor the first quartz watch would be available until 1969, well after the space program was underway. The evaluation concluded in March 1965 with the selection of the Speedmaster, which survived the tests while remaining largely within 5 seconds per day rate”

    So I think it is time that the real story of what happened regarding the selection of the Omega Speedmaster as the only watch approved to be used in all space missions be known, and to forget for once and forever that fictional narrative of the watches bought at Corrigan, because That Is Not Correct, is only there to perpetuate a legend that does not need lies as backup.

    To finish my comment let me add that the Speedmaster was re-certified again in the 70’s by NASA, and then later was certified by ESA (European Space Agency) and the Russian Space Agency. But there have been also other watches that have been used in space like the Bulova Accutron that was used in in the cockpit of the Apollo spacecraft, and most recently some Seiko automatic chronographs on the International Space Station. I do not remember the names of the astronauts using the Seikos. Hope this gives more info to Omega fans. But still the Omega Speedmaster is The One and Only MoonWatch. period