The Moon Watch
There are watches – and then there’s the Omega Speedmaster, a horological hero
Column by The Watch Atelier
The second watch we feel any serious collection should include is the Omega Speedmaster. No other watch comes close to it, both in terms of style and story.
Designed in late 1955 by a collaboration between Omega and Lemania. The brief was to create a sturdy chronograph that could achieve chronometer precision along with being reliable, waterproof and both easy to use and read. The prototype was ready at the end of 1956 and unveiled to the public in 1957.
The resultant watch instantly changed the face of chronograph watches, it was the first to have what is now pretty much the standard chronograph layout of three sub-dials and a timing scale on the bezel. Its simple elegance ensured the Speedmaster’s place as the most iconic chronograph ever created. But what was to follow meant that this was to become possibly the most famous watch of all time.
The Speedmaster first came the attention of NASA in 1962. Wally Schirra, one of the first American astronauts, wore his own Omega Speedmaster on a Mercury flight in October 3rd, 1962. This was a private purchase and had nothing to do with NASA. Prior to this astronauts had been pushing for an official watch that could be worn during space missions. NASA soon realised that untested items being used during missions could potentially be dangerous, therefore they embarked upon a project to source and certify the best watch available for their astronauts to wear in space.
NASA purchased a series of chronographs from various different brands, these included; Breitling, Longines, Omega and Rolex. When NASA received the watches, they were initially put through a series of tests and pre-selection processes known as the “Qualification Test Procedures.” Only three watches out of six successfully survived this arduous pre-selection phase. The remaining three were then subjected to 11 different tests – in what was almost certainly the most stringent testing process in the history of horology:
- High temperature: 48 hours at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) followed by 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C).
- Low temperature: 4 hours at a temperature of 0°F (-18°C).
- Temperature-Pressure: 15 cycles of heating to 71°C for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to -18°C for 45 minutes at 10−6 atm.
- Relative humidity: 240 hours at temperatures varying between 68°F and 160°F (20°C and 71°C) in a relative humidity of at least 95%.
- Oxygen atmosphere: 48 hours in an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at a pressure of 0.35 atm.
- Shock: Six shocks of 40 G, each 11 milliseconds in duration, in six different directions.
- Acceleration: From 1 G to 7.25 G within 333 seconds, along an axis parallel to the longitudinal spacecraft axis.
- Decompression: 90 minutes in a vacuum of 10-6 atm at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) and 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C).
- High pressure: 1.6 atm for a minimum period of one hour.
- Vibration: Three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz.
- Acoustic noise: 130 db over a frequency range of 40 to 10,000 Hz, duration 30 minutes.
On March 1, 1965, the test results were completed with only the Omega Speedmaster passing.
NASA wrote, “Operational and environmental tests of the three selected chronographs have been completed; and, as a result of the test, Omega chronographs have been calibrated and issued to three members of the Gemini Titan III crews.”
Curiously, Omega only learned about the Speedmaster’s journeys into space after seeing a photograph of Ed White taken during America’s first spacewalk on the Gemini 4 mission in June 1965. The watch was attached to his arm with a long nylon strap secured with velcro, a forerunner of the fashionable NATO straps of today.
In July 1969 with the landing of Apollo 11 on the Sea of Tranquility the Speedmaster became the first watch on the Moon. However, 10 months later the Speedmaster became a horological hero…..
In April 13, 1970, two days after the launch of Apollo13, astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise were busy attending their normal duties. Everything was going according to plan until they heard a loud bang from outside. Swigert famously radioed ground control, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
It was soon ascertained that the problem was an electrical short-circuit with the resultant arcing, causing one of the craft’s oxygen tanks to burst. Ground control immediately advised the crew to power down all nonessential systems. Oxygen and fuel cell power became of the utmost importance at this point – to use any more than necessary would result in total mission failure.
After analysing the many options for bringing the astronauts home safely, ground control decided that the astronauts should use the modest supplies in the lunar module to survive on and bring the craft back to Earth. The spacecraft needed to be aligned to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle. Due to the high power requirements and potentially unstable state of the command module, the lunar modules descent engine was decided upon to make the course corrections. The descent engine had no automatic guidance or options for optical guidance; the astronauts were required to make mid-flight adjustment to their trajectory and they had to manually time these with great precision. The astronauts used their Omega Speedmaster watches to time these adjustments. Careful timing was crucial – not long enough and they would get the trajectory wrong, too long and they would use up the descent engine and be lost powerless in space. Three corrections were made in total, each one timed precisely. The spacecraft entered the Earth’s atmosphere in a trajectory that would land them close to the recovery crews stationed in the Pacific Ocean.
For its contributions to the success of the mission Omega was awarded the Silver Snoopy award. One of the greatest honours NASA can bestow on employees and contractors.