It’s arguably the world’s most recognisable watch and certainly the most travelled. The Omega Speedmaster’s pivotal role on the Apollo missions to the moon has deservedly cemented its place in horological history.
From the very start of manned space missions the Speedmaster was the astronauts’ favourite choice of watch. In 1962 Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper took their own privately purchased Omegas into orbit. It’s worth remembering that for their missions, and all the ones that followed, the Speedmaster was the only item of equipment taken into space that had not been built from scratch or heavily modified. The Speedmaster was taken straight off the shelf.
So having passed NASA’s flight certification tests what role did the Speedmaster actually play during that glorious period of space exploration? Speaking at an event in Frankfurt earlier this year Charlie Duke, Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo XVI, spoke of the importance of the Speedmaster to the Apollo astronauts.
“The importance of the Speedmaster was its stopwatch. It was really important that I could time the burns (of the engines) accurately, because if the computer didn’t shut them down automatically, we used the watch to back it up.”
“On re-entry, mission control would tell us when it had started. And two minutes later we would have to execute a roll-over (to position the heat shield correctly). Apollo had no wings like the Space Shuttle, but it had lift like an airplane, so when it dug into the atmosphere it wanted to come back out again. We called it ‘skip out’ and if you allowed that to happen, you were lost.”
On every re-entry, every engine burn, and most famously on the Apollo XIII mission where the watch helped the crew avoid disaster, the Speedmaster proved itself over and over to the astronauts.
Legend has it that Neil Armstrong left his 105.012 Speedmaster on board the lunar module as back-up for the Bulova clock which had malfunctioned. So it was Buzz Aldrin who first wore a Speedmaster (thought to have been a 105.003) on the lunar surface, where the stopwatch took a back seat and the Speedmaster fulfilled a different function.
As Aldrin explains, “It was a little difficult to activate the stopwatch to time things with gloves on. But we didn’t need to do that really. We were in communication with Earth all the time. So we felt at home because we could talk to each other. But we wore the watches and we kept them set to the time of the shifts of the people back in mission control. They were on an 8 hour shift. So, there we were on the moon, going around, but we knew what time it was in Houston, Texas all the time. Now, few things are less necessary when walking around on the moon than knowing what time it is in Houston. Nonetheless, being a watch guy, I decided to strap the Speedmaster onto my right wrist around the outside of my bulky spacesuit.”
The Speedmaster was the first watch worn on the moon, and so far, the last. Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to leave the lunar surface, on the Apollo XVII mission of 1972, was once asked what the Omega Speedmaster meant to him. He remembered that at the time of closing the mission he looked up towards the earth and realised that in that moment he was the most isolated man alive.
Looking down at the Speedmaster on his wrist made him imagine what was happening back home on earth; what his wife and family were doing at that exact time. It was, he said, the only thing he had to connect him to home.
In the 50 years since Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon, the achievements of the Speedmaster in space flight have been celebrated by Omega, by NASA and by millions of fans around the world. Following Apollo XIII Omega was awarded the prestigious Silver Snoopy Award by NASA, given to employees and contractors for outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success.
The watch itself has arguably never been more popular than it is today. Vintage models are highly sought after. Special editions, commemorative editions and limited editions have garnered the Speedy one of the most loyal and devoted followings of any watch. Omega’s relationship with NASA has endured and flourished too, with Speedmasters accompanying astronauts on the Space Shuttle and ISS.
And if, one day, we reach Mars, perhaps the first person to set foot on the red planet wearing a watch will look down and see that familiar text on their dial.
Omega Speedmaster Professional.