May 24, 2022
by David Bredan
Not one, but two Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute watches have just been revealed. First, a watch that is actually over 60 years old and is on public display for the first time: The first Swiss wristwatch ever in space (wowzers), i.e., the specially modified Navitimer of astronaut Scott Carpenter. Second, the new Breitling Navitimer B02 Chronograph 41 Cosmonaute Limited Edition — a bit of a mouthful — the modern tribute to the piece Carpenter wore when he orbited the Earth three times while wearing his Navitimer Cosmonaute during his Mercury-Atlas 7 mission on the 24th of May, 1962. Exactly 60 years ago.
As Breitling fans know at this point, pretty much every year since Georges Kern took over at the helm as CEO, the Grenchen-based watchmaker has released a single “heritage” edition that is nothing but pure, unadulterated fan service. Highly limited, this series of editions has included re-issues of the legendary Navitimer 806, along with a trio of the AVI 765 (a favorite of Breitling historian and consultant Fred Mandelbaum). This year, Breitling is tapping another key brand milestone around the 1962 Cosmonaute, the 60th Anniversary of another legendary reference that carried two unique distinctions: first, it was recognized in Breitling collector circles as the first Swiss wristwatch in space, and second, its unique 24-hour time display, as specially requested by Carpenter himself.
Why a 24-hour display in space? On a space mission that was 5 hours long?
It’s not so that he could keep track of AM/PM hours more securely and conveniently. Space missions revolve around many complex elements, and redundancy is certainly one of them. The 24-hour display on that Navitimer was requested so that it would be redundant with the onboard clock – which, for obvious reasons, displayed time in what Americans call “military time” and we Europeans call “time.” Should onboard timekeeping break, the watch will still display time in a way that allows for seamless communication with mission control.
A candid detail was shared by Scott Kelly, astronaut and Breitling Pioneer Squad member, at the launch event of the new Navitimer Cosmonaute. The timeline between consigning the watch and the Willy Breitling-directed watchmaker delivering it was very tight. Kris Stoever, Carpenter’s daughter, recollects that on March 15th, the first flight was assigned and the request to Breitling went out on NASA letterhead still in March. Given the constraints of the time, the request made it to Breitling only shortly before the flight, sometime in May. Breitling – a company heavily involved in aviation watches (the Navitimer had already existed for 10 years at the time) – was quick and excited to comply and sent the watch (essentially a prototype) out in haste. Scott Carpenter adored his new watch, as told by his daughter at the launch event, and as told by Carpenter himself in a handwritten letter giving feedback to the watchmaker.
This holds true even if Carpenter’s first 24-hour Navitimer Cosmonaute lived a glorious, but short life.
Upon return to Earth, the watch got exposed to seawater while Carpenter waited to be recovered from his capsule, floating somewhere in the ocean. The automatic return system designed to guide him to a specific location failed during return and Carpenter, now using manual control, overshot 250 nauticual miles (450 kilometers) – not bad considering at some point he was descending at 7.9 kilometers every second. For 49 minutes, the rescue teams didn’t know where the capsule and Carpenter were. Due to the system not working correctly, the capsule landed capsized, forcing the astronaut to escape and turn it around. In the process, the watch, and especially its dial and movement, exposed to salty seawater, corroded heavily. For 60 years, it remained in the private collection of the Breitling family, to be revealed just now, for the first time ever since its journey to space – and into the ocean. Seeing the damage, Carpenter sent the watch back to Breitling, and Breitling sent him a brand new watch, which is still owned by the Carpenter family.
But wait, why not the first watch in space? Well, that’s more a matter of the space race than something simply down to watchmakers: The rarely acknowledged Russian “Strela” owns that distinction, but pilots and space pioneers in the Western world over didn’t end up wearing them universally, so here we are.
Just a few more words on that first Swiss wristwatch in space. Breitling recalls: “On 24 May 1962, five hours after launch, the Aurora 7 space capsule with Carpenter aboard splashed down safely in the Atlantic. The recovery operation lasted three hours, with the long exposure to seawater resulting in irreparable damage to Carpenter’s Cosmonaute. Breitling immediately replaced Carpenter’s watch, but that battered and corroded piece of space history remained in the Breitling family archives—unrestored and widely unknown. That is, until today.”
Interestingly, 60 years on and the Navitimer, including every piece from the very recently overhauled collection (hands-on here), largely remains unsuited for exposure to water. Breitling candidly shared with us at the time that significant efforts have been made to waterproof the rotating bezel, but because of the way it has to interact with the internal flange ring, waterproofness could have only been achieved through significant gains in thickness – and that was not the way Breitling wanted this pilot’s watch to go. And so the Navitimer, including this Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute Limited Edition for 2022, remains rated waterproof to 3 bar.
So no, neither the Navitimer, nor the Navitimer Cosmonaute has morphed into a waterproof chronograph – if you want one of those, get a Chronomat, a Superocean Heritage, an Avenger, a Premier, or an Endurance Pro — just about any other Breitling. But if you want one with a rotating slide rule and want it to be called a Navitimer, you’d better be wearing pilot’s suits and not dive suits, and that’s all good.
Thankfully, the new reference PB02301A1B1P1 (or PB02301A1B1A1 if you want it on the bracelet) isn’t just a shot-for-shot re-issue of the Cosmonaute — it’s a decidedly luxe approach to one of the earliest known purpose-built watches for astronauts, one that acknowledges its fans (hat tip to Mandelbaum for his work here) with a hand-wound 24-hour-display movement with a chronograph, a stainless steel case, and a platinum bezel. Certainly a far cry in terms of materials and movement from the ref. 809 that John Glenn would wear on his pioneering earth orbit in 1962, but just as strong in proper, unadulterated Cosmonaute vibes.
The case of the new Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute Limited Edition measures 41mm and is just 13mm-thick – courtesy of the hand-wound-only B02 movement that ditches the self-winding system of the B01 it is based on. Power reserve and frequency maintain their impressive combination of 70 hours and 4 Hertz, and the column wheel and vertical clutch — all four are cornerstones of a proper modern chronograph movement — are all here, as well. Lug-to-lug the Navitimer Cosmonaute measures 47.09mm, making it beautifully wearable and in tune not just with the original, but also with the changing tides of the big-watch trend.
On the wrist, the Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute makes me want to come up with a space-themed alternative term to “desk diving,” a phrase, in case you are new to watches, used for those of us who wear over-engineered dive watches to the office but never in their intended element. Am I desk-ronaut (I do apologize) rocking a 24-hour dial that, don’t you know, Scott Carpenter requested for his space missions? I don’t know. What I do know is that if I were in the market for a Navitimer, I’d be really tempted to try to get one of the 362 pieces of the new Navitimer Cosmonaute Limited Edition. It’s extra rarity and platinum bezel are both very tempting. On the flipside, the “regular” and also very fresh Navitimer has some eye-wateringly beautiful new renditions, is less expensive by a considerable amount — $1,800 — and is probably easier to read than the somewhat cramped and busy 24-hour dial on a 41mm watch.
With well over 1,000 points of sale worldwide but only 362 pieces available to sell, it goes without saying that most Breitling fans likely won’t even see one of these in the metal until they’re long gone. Thus, Breitling has confirmed that the limited run will be sold specifically through its boutique network, and its e-commerce site, and will be available in two options: with Breitling’s seven-link stainless steel bracelet (ref. PB02301A1B1A1) for a price of $11,200 USD or on an alligator strap (ref. PB02301A1B1P1) for $10,800 USD. You can learn more and get an order submitted via the brand’s website at breitling.com.