When Omega introduced the Speedmaster watch in 1957, no one imagined that it would later accompany a parade of space pioneers to the moon. Click here to read watch writer Jens Koch’s fascinating history of the “Moonwatch,” from the current issue of WatchTime.
America’s first manned space missions began with Project Mercury, established on Oct. 7, 1958. The astronauts aboard Mercury spacecraft wore their own personal wristwatches. Some of these were Omega Speedmasters.
In his address to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy urged the country to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. In pursuit of this goal, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced a plan in December of that year to extend Project Mercury to develop a two-man spacecraft. This new program was named Gemini.
Astronaut Walter Schirra was wearing his own Speedmaster when he and his Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft orbited the Earth six times on Oct. 3, 1962, a flight lasting 9 hours and 15 minutes. NASA decided to make astronauts’ wristwatches part of their equipment for Project Gemini and for the subsequent Apollo program, and thus for the moon landing. The agency commissioned James H. Ragan, a NASA aerospace engineer and flight hardware expert, to write a list of specs, test potential watches and purchase the winning models. The watch would have to be a chronograph, and an official call for candidates was issued. In addition to Omega, other entrants were Longines, Wittnauer and Rolex. All models were tested under zero gravity, extreme pressure variations, bone-jarring vibrations, and temperatures ranging from -18 to +93 degrees Celsius. The watches were also tested by astronauts aboard a Gemini space flight.
The Speedmaster outperformed all the other watches in both test series. The watch was officially designated as “flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions” on March 1, 1965. NASA bought an initial group of 15 to 20 Speedmaster watches from Omega. Unlike almost all other Apollo equipment, the watch was not manufactured for use specifically by NASA or for use in space but was available in retail outlets in the U.S.
The first Speedmaster models flew into space three weeks later on the wrists of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young as official equipment aboard Gemini 3. This was the first official trip for the chronograph although it had already flown in space twice on Project Mercury missions.
The real test for the Speedmaster came on June 3, 1965, during the Gemini 4 mission, when astronaut Edward H. White wore the chronograph over the sleeve of his spacesuit for a spacewalk. The environment in outer space is as harsh as any a watch will encounter anywhere. Near-vacuum conditions and extreme temperatures prevail. The temperature on the side of the ship exposed to the sun climbs to about 100 C and plummets on the other side to approximately –100 C. In anticipation of these rigors, Omega developed prototypes with red anodized aluminum cases for protection from extreme temperature variations and dials coated with zinc oxide to provide the highest resistance to solar radiation. But these prototypes turned out to be unnecessary because the Speedmaster withstood the extreme temperatures without any modifications.
Omega added the word “Professional” to the Speedmaster’s dial in 1965 and highlighted the watch’s role in space exploration in the brand’s advertising campaigns. The race to put the first man on the moon was by then in full swing. The USSR had led the U.S. in the space race for several years. The first man-made object to reach the lunar surface was the Soviet Lunik 2 space probe, which accomplished a planned crash landing in 1959. On Feb. 3, 1966, the Soviets also completed the first soft landing on the moon with their Luna 9 spacecraft.
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