Space Travelling With The NASA-certified Omega Speedmasters

The watch that have gone to space more than any other watch collection in the world and has since returned with many stories etched on their cases.

BY Daniel Goh | Apr 18, 2017 | Feature

Looking up at the stars from Earth, space seems like the embodiment of calm; an absence of gravity and sound, in a near-endless expanse. But in reality past our atmosphere, it is one of the most hazardous environments known to man. It’s not just the lack of oxygen, rapid decompression, extreme temperature variations along with cosmic radiation are just some of the very painful ways you will die in space. Remarkably, despite the odds, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has managed to successfully strap people to the to the top of rockets, equip them with the necessary tools to survive in space and successfully bring them back to earth since the 1960s; and one of those tools, are, if you’d believe it, Omega’s Speedmaster watches.

Although the speedmaster was initially built by omega for motor racing enthusiasts, it quickly gained international attention during the Space Race when these Speedmasters became the standard watch for NASA’s astronauts. The first Omega to breach the stratosphere and go into space however was not certified by NASA but rather a personal Speedmaster ref. CK 2998 which was on the wrist of the astronaut Walter Schirra during the ‘Sigma 7’ mission of the Mercury Programme in 1962. 

It was only a little later that NASA tasked Jim Ragan, their aerospace engineer, to find a watch that they could certify for use in space. This watch would be a backup for the astronauts in the event that all the digital timers failed. According to Ragan, four brands submitted their watches to be tested, one was ruled out right off the bat as it “wasn’t a capable wrist-worn watch.” So it was down to three watches that needed to pass all 10 different environmental tests; a single failure in any one would mean that it could not be certified. The other two competitors were eliminated in the first round of testing—a thermal vacuum test—which left Omega’s Speedmaster to fend off the other nine elements to be deemed “flight qualified for all manned space missions.” 

The funny thing was, all three watches were presented to the astronauts and without knowing the results of the tests, they all picked the Speedmaster as their choice of watch. So it was settled, from March 23rd, 1965—the time of the Gemini 3 launch-Omega became the single contractor to supply them the watches from then until the days of NASA’s shuttle and space station missions. Remarkably Ragan testifies that NASA never mandated any changes to the model 6049 (US designation) Speedmaster used during the Gemini missions, but after he mentioned an observation that the pushers were prone to bending and breaking during training, Omega gladly redesigned the case slightly to offer better protection for the pushers and this new model 6126 was used for the Apollo missions. 

Even if the NASA certification wasn’t enough to cement the brand’s legacy in space, the moon landing of 1969 would certainly do the trick. July 20th, 1969; the Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon and on the 21st, Neil Armstrong disembarks the craft making history as the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon uttering the famous phrase, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Both Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were equipped with Omega Speedmasters which earned the Swiss watch manufacture the Moonwatch moniker. However even though Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, Buzz Aldrin was actually the first man to wear the Speedmaster on the surface of the moon. According to sources, Armstrong had actually left his wristwatch in the capsule as a backup because the mission timer was out. 

Then came Apollo 13; of course the story of the Apollo 13 has been well documented with the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 and even a movie to follow but what is not too well documented is the part Omega played in bringing home astronauts James Lovell, Fred Haise, and John Swigert. The initial mission was to land in the Fra Mauro area of the moon but two days after liftoff, a service module oxygen tank ruptured. The blast damaged another oxygen tank and along with it two of the three fuel cells which were the main sources of the spacecraft’s electricity.

The three astronauts retreated to the lunar module of the spacecraft where energy saving measures forced them to turn off all non-essential electronics including the heating. The lunar module was designed to keep two people alive for two days and not three people for four days and so the astronauts also had to reduce their water and food intake (risking dehydration) and even use  plastic bags, cardboard and to tape as a makeshift way to hold the lithium hydroxide canisters (for carbon dioxide removal). 

After overcoming these obstacles, they were then told by mission control that they were off course by 60 to 80 nautical miles making re-entry into earth’s atmosphere impossible. As the lunar module was designed to do nothing more than to land on the moon and return to the service station in the moon’s orbit the pilots had to manually change their course by executing short burst from the thrusters for a very precise 14 seconds. And since there the electronic timer was out, Swigert could only rely on the NASA certified Omega Speedmaster watch he had on his wrist.  Needless to say all three astronauts made it back to Earth landing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean near Samoa. For their part in this extraordinary feat of the human spirit, Omega was awarded with the Silver Snoopy award, normally presented to pilots for outstanding performance, contributing to flight safety and mission success. 

These iconic references of Omega’s Speedmasters have since become holy grail watches for many enthusiasts and space geeks alike. But for all those who can’t seem to find a piece of history within the second hand market, Omega does offer limited edition tributes to Apollo 11, Apollo 13 and even a reiteration of the Speedmaster ref. CK 2998, the first Omega in space.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, April 2017.