Today, 20 July 2019, the world remembers man’s first steps on the moon, 50 years ago. On the same day, Omega’s Speedmaster became the first watch on the moon. Here, Dubai Watch Week tells its extraordinary tale
The story of man’s voyage to the Moon is one of the great tales of human endeavour. At one point, NASA had 400,000 people working on it. Neil Armstrong was the first man to step foot on the lunar surface, putting his foot into the grey dust at 10:56pm Eastern Time on 20 July 1969. ‘That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,’ were the perfect and now familiar words he uttered as he made history.
It was also a historic moment for Omega. Nineteen minutes after Armstrong’s descent, Buzz Aldrin stepped off the lunar landing module ladder onto the Moon wearing an Omega Speedmaster. The Swiss watch company hit the marketing jackpot that day.
But Armstrong and Aldrin were not the first to wear the Speedmaster into space. Far from it. The story begins some years earlier.
Omega introduced the Speedmaster in 1957. It was a steel sports and racing chronograph that sat in Omega’s Professional collection, alongside the Seamaster 300 and the Railmaster. It was masculine, manly, macho even. The design was simple. A clear, legible dial with three counters; a ‘broad arrow’ hour hand; and a tachymeter on the bezel – a first for any watch. It was powered by the hand-wound Calibre 321, which had a lateral clutch, a column-wheel, an antimagnetic cover and a shock-protection mechanism. It was, and remains, a great movement.
The Speedmaster’s journey from there to the Moon was the subject of much debate for many years, but in recent times the Omega Museum in Bienne has worked with NASA to find out exactly how it came about.
It started in 1962 when astronauts Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper bought Speedmasters privately, without NASA’s knowledge, and then wore them on Mercury flights. Their spacecraft were state-of-the-art for the time, but they wanted something as back-up in case onboard instruments failed – a practice pilots continue today.
So in 1964, NASA determined it needed a watch. But, despite its vast resources, it didn’t want to develop one of its own. Instead, it tasked a young project engineer by the name of James H. Ragan to find one. Ragan began a procurement process. NASA was government-funded and couldn’t be seen to be taking freebies. He wrote to 10 watch companies asking for watches, but only four replied: Rolex, Longines, Hamilton and Omega. In fairness, none knew what the watch was for – Ragan made no mention of it, as convention required.
The Hamilton was an unwieldy pocket watch and so Ragan threw it out immediately. The other three were then submitted to a barrage of 11 tests Ragan had devised to assess how the watch would perform in space. The Rolex and the Longines failed early on, but the Speedmaster passed the lot. Ragan had also given watches to the astronauts to try out for size, and fortunately for him, they liked the Speedmaster over the others, too.
NASA declared the Speedmaster reference ST105.003 ‘Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions’ on the 1st of March 1965, and three weeks later it accompanied Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and John Young onboard Gemini 3. Omega knew little of what its watches were being called on to do. In June 1965, Ed White wore a Speedmaster on the Gemini 4 mission for America’s first space walk. It’s said Omega only found out when pictures of it strapped to White’s wrist emerged later.
Astronauts liked order and regulation. After flights, Ragan would take the watches back for maintenance, much to the displeasure of the crews. Each would ask that the same serial number be returned to them for their next mission.
Despite not being designed for space, the Speedmaster proved time and again it was a worthy flight companion, and so when the Apollo Program began, it kept its place. When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in July 1969, there were two watches on board. Armstrong left his on the lunar landing module, determined there should be at least one back-up timekeeper in case something went wrong during the mission, while Aldrin strapped his around his wrist, over his space suit. Both men had LCD screens showing the time on their suits, but even so, Aldrin felt he still needed the Speedmaster.
The Speedmaster would go on to serve future Apollo crews, including those on the fateful Apollo 13 mission when it was used to time the critical thrusts required to align the stricken service module so the astronauts could return to Earth. Today, every watch that ever flew is in Washington DC’s Smithsonian, bar one – Aldrin’s. It went missing in the early 1970s and is yet to be found.
Because of its role in NASA’s space missions, Omega’s Speedmaster has become one of the most iconic watches on the planet, long-since known as the ‘Moonwatch’ to reflect its role in man’s greatest adventure. The qualification Ragan achieved for the watch in 1965 still applies.
To mark the 50th anniversary, Omega launched the Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Limited Edition, a 42mm steel piece featuring details cast in a new pale, fade-resistant 18-carat yellow gold alloy dubbed Moonshine™ Gold, and a laser-engraved image of Buzz Aldrin descending the lunar module ladder. Despite the run extending to 6,969 pieces – stretching the definition of the limited edition tag – retailers are already reporting waiting lists for it. Such is the power of the Moonwatch and its incredible story.