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Race to the Moon: How Omega were selected for the Apollo Missions

It’s now almost 50 years since, on July 20th 1969, the Apollo XI Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ set astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin down on the surface of the Moon. Next day, July 21st, at 2:56 UTC, Armstrong made his giant leap and the Omega Speedmaster Professional on his wrist became – from that moment on - the Moonwatch. 

But how did a watch originally designed for racing drivers come to be the first watch worn on the moon? 

For years rumours swirled around that when NASA started looking for a watch for their astronauts to wear, they sent a staffer to a downtown Houston department store with a mission to pick up some watches that they thought might be suited to the task. 

NASA astronauts relaxing during training
Image courtesy of NASA

Almost incredibly, that story was only finally disproved in 2017 when Petros Protopapas, the Brand Heritage Manager of Omega presented a more credible, documented truth. He showed how the Speedmaster’s journey to the moon officially began on September 21st 1964 when NASA’s Operations Director Deke Slayton wrote an internal memo to the procurement department outlining his requirements for a watch with chronograph functions suitable for a manned mission to the lunar surface. 

The Speedmaster had in fact already proven itself in space. Astronauts Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper had purchased their own personal Speedmasters for use during the Mercury and Gemini missions in 1962. But having untested kit in the cockpit of the new spacecraft was never an idea that was going to fly. So NASA’s request was now sent to 10 different watch brands and four responded: Rolex, Longines-Wittnauer, Hamilton and Omega. For some reason, Hamilton sent a pocket watch instead of the chronograph wristwatch NASA asked for, and were eliminated.

The remaining brands were asked to provide three examples of their watch. Omega sent NASA their Speedmaster; Rolex their 6238 ‘Pre-Daytona’ chronograph, and Longines-Wittnauer their 235T. Both the Rolex and the Longines-Wittnauer housed the Valjoux 72 movement, whilst the Speedmaster ran the Lemania based 321 calibre.

richard gordon wearing an omega speedmaster
Apollo 12 astronaut Richard Gordon wearing his Omega Speedmaster. Image courtesy of NASA

The NASA Tests

In a relatively short period at the end of 1964 and early 1965, the watches were subjected to a series of 11 demanding tests designed to push them to their limits, and beyond. Detailed assessments were made during and after each test and the physical integrity of the different components of each watch as well as its functions and rate were checked and noted. 

NASA’s tests, in their own words, were as follows:

1. High temperature

48 hours at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) followed by 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C). This under a pressure of 5.5 psi (0.35 atm) and relative humidity not exceeding 15%.

2. Low temperature

Four hours at a temperature of 0°F (-18°C).

3. Temperature-Pressure

Chamber pressure maximum of 1.47 x 10-5 psia (10-6 atm) with temperature raised to 160°F (71°C). The temperature shall then be lowered to 0°F (-18°C) in 45 minutes and raised again to 160°F in 45 minutes. Fifteen more such cycles shall be completed.

4. Humidity

A total time of 240 hours at temperatures varying between 68°F and 160°F (20°C and 71°C) in a relative humidity of at least 95%. The steam used must have a pH value between 6.5 and 7.5.

5. Oxygen atmosphere

The test item shall be placed in an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at a pressure of 5.5 psia (0.35 atm) for 48 hours. Performance outside of specification, tolerance, visible burning, creation of toxic gases, obnoxious odours, or deterioration of seals or lubricants shall constitute failure to pass this test. The ambient temperature shall be maintained at 160°F (71°C).

6. Shock

Six shocks of 40 Gs, each 11 milliseconds in duration, in six different directions.

7. Acceleration

The equipment shall be accelerated linearly from 1 G to 7.25 Gs within 333 seconds, along an axis parallel to the longitudinal spacecraft axis.

8. Decompression

Ninety minutes in a vacuum of 1.47 x 10-5 (10-6 atm) at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) and 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C).

9. High pressure

The equipment is to be subjected to a pressure of 23.5 psia (1.6 atm) for a minimum period of one hour.

10. Vibration

Three cycles of 30 minutes (lateral, horizontal, vertical), the frequency of varying from 5 to 2,000 cps and back to 5 cps in 15 minutes. Average acceleration per impulse must be at least 8.8 Gs.

11. Acoustic noise

130 db over a frequency range of 40 to 10,000 Hz, duration 30 minutes.

Omega speedmaster sitting on top of nasa test document
The Omega Speedmaster sitting on top of the NASA test results. Image courtesy of NASA

Results

On March 1st 1965, the tests were completed and on June 1st the Omega Speedmaster received the official certification for use during manned space missions. According to Jim Ragan, former NASA Program Manager, the Rolex failed the humidity test by completely stopping and failed again during the high-temperature test. The Longines also failed the high-temperature test as the crystal warped and disengaged.

The Speedmaster didn’t come out entirely unscathed either. The luminous material on the dial’s hour markers deteriorated and its beat rate was affected by the decompression and acceleration tests. It nevertheless passed the tests and was officially certified by NASA for manned space missions. 

On 7th January 2019 Petros Protopapas held a 90 minute forum in front of a specially invited audience to shed new light on the results of the NASA tests. In particular Mr. Protopapas focused on the small technical differences between the 321 caliber and the Valjoux 72 movements. Both movements feature a column wheel and triple registers, but what sets the Speedmaster’s Lemania 321 apart are some highly robust features that allowed the watch to survive violent jolting while the chronograph was in use. These features meant that the hands were less likely to skip under the extreme conditions experienced in space. 

On such fine margins of performance legends are created and the moonwatch story might have been so different had another watch been selected for that first lunar mission. But perhaps the best explanation for the success of the Speedmaster came from Jim Ragan who, when asked why the Speedmaster had performed so well for the astronauts, replied simply, ‘It’s a tough made watch. We beat the devil out of it.’

apollo 11 lauching by a usa flag
Image courtesy of NASA