Space travel is an unforgiving and exacting science of time and distance with Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat. Missions are calculated down to the minutes and seconds, and critical activities – such as engine burns and EVA activities -- are timed with precision. A mistake in timing is, literally, a matter of life and death. As the United States advanced further into Space, the astronauts needed timepieces that would allow them to time various mission events such as engine burns and EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity) or commonly called "Spacewalks."
In the early days of the American space program, various astronauts used different watches during the Mercury missions and usually from off the shelf. John Glenn, for example, wore a Heuer stopwatch, Scott Carpenter wore his Breitling, and Wally Schirra preferred his Omega Speedmaster. Brand aside, the one watch element in common was that most of the astronauts used a chronograph type of watch with stopwatch and timer functions. This was not an unusual decision on their part, since pilots had been using a chronographs watch for decades.
After the Mercury program, and with missions becoming more complex and longer in duration, NASA decided it needed to standardize the type of watch to be used on future projects (such as Gemini and Apollo) in order to ensure not only consistency in timing accuracy, but also in function and durability as well. In 1962, NASA issued a request to several watch companies for a sample to be used in tests to determine their capability to withstand the rigors of spaceflight.
The four known companies that submitted watches for testing were Rolex, Longines, Omega and Hamilton. The final winner of the intense testing would be the Omega Speedmaster, which would start being used by all astronauts as standard issued equipment on the Gemini 4 mission. Omega would go on to fly on all NASA manned spaceflights as the standard timepiece worn and used by the astronauts.
The "Golden" Speedmaster
Omega went to great lengths to cultivate the Speedmaster brand over the next forty years by relating the watch to America’s Moon landings. Regardless of the Omega Watch Company’s ownership, the Speedmaster was continuously referred to “the first watch worn on the Moon.
To further cement this accomplishment to the historic spaceflights that were taking place at the time, Omega awarded solid 18K gold Speedmaster watches to all NASA astronauts who had flown a mission up to and including the first lunar landing mission. During a special black tie dinner given at the Warwick Hotel in Houston, TX on November 25, 1969 (Apollo 12 was in route to the second lunar landing at the time), Omega presented the 1969 Omega Speedmaster Professional Apollo XI Commemorative Watch to those astronauts who had left Earth prior to the dinner.
The rarity of this watch is in the engraved inscription on the reverse of the watch case. Each watch was inscribed with each individual astronaut’s name, each of their flights and the saying, “to mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time.” The watch and the bracelet are solid 18K gold. Omega added an unusual twist with the addition of a unique rose colored bezel. The only time the company used such a color in it's entire Speedmaster collection. A total of 23 out a total of 39 watches that were made were handed out that evening.
One example of this type of time piece which I acquired for the collection is Wally Schirra’s personal presentation watch as shown below.
It is of special interest that Wally was given this watch. Wally was the first astronaut to wear an Omega Speedmaster watch in Space during his Mercury flight in October of 1962. Later on NASA would test and approve the Omega Speedmaster for use on all future US missions including landing on the Moon.
The reverse of Schirra’s watch has the special engraved inscription showing his name, missions and the quotation that separates the astronaut watches from any other Omega Speedmaster. The Schirra watch has a uniqueness that carries onto this day. Wally was the first astronaut to fly three missions before the Apollo XI flight. Wally is also the only astronaut to fly a mission in all three projects that the United States flew in order to get to the Moon. The watch lists his Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions in order at the bottom of the watch back.
Omega engraved Wally’s personal watch with the following wording dedicated to the missions that Wally flew during his time with NASA.
Astronaut Walter M. Schirra
To mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time
Mercury 8, Gemini 6, Apollo 7
These watches also came with a specially designed box that represented the Speedmaster’s unique relationship with manned flights to the Moon. The watch box was a cube with images of the lunar surface as would be seen from a spacecraft orbiting the Moon. Note that the box only shows the Omega symbol and the word Speedmaster. There is no written example of the company name on the box and only the words SWISS MADE stamped on the bottom of the box.
General Stafford once told me that the name could not be used during the presentation and only the words “Swiss Made” watch was used at the time.
These gold watches are truly magnificent and worthy of the term “rare.”
And despite NASA’s establishment of Omega as the official watch for the astronauts, Omega’s are surprisingly not the only timepieces to have participated in the space program.
Recently, Robert-Jan Broer of Fratello Watches blog wrote an article about this watch and it's rarity among Omega Speedmasters in his weekly "Speedy Tuesday" column. The story can be found at this link.
Bulova and the Moon
While Omega Speedmaster watches were the first on the Moon, it turns out that they weren’t the on only timepieces that were used on the lunar surface.
Bulova was supplying timing mechanisms for the Apollo spacecraft systems. In 1960, Bulova began manufacturing a timing mechanism with a tuning fork called the Accutron 214. The Accutron provided such accuracy that it became the first wristwatch to be certified for use by the US railroads. The Accutron movement was used by the government in military satellites. NASA brought the movement into the Space Age by installing it in the Apollo spacecraft.
In mid 1966, after Omega had begun advertizing their Speedmaster watch as NASA’s choice for outfitting the astronauts with time pieces, Bulova started a campaign aimed at NASA to add an American made chronograph onto the Moon flights. Bulova attempted to persuade NASA, without success, to replace the Omega Speedmaster with a Bulova wrist chronograph developed for spaceflight.
In March of 1971, Bulova’s representative, General James McCormick approached David Scott through a senior ranking officer, Colonel Frank Borman, to consider carrying a Bulova chronograph on his Apollo 15 mission to Hadley Rille in the Apennine Mountain range on the Moon. Scott agreed to “make every attempt to give the Bulova Chronograph a full evaluation” and, so, a Bulova watch was packed and stored in the lunar module for the flight. That chronograph would later be used during Dave Scott’s 3rd EVA on the lunar surface.
Most wrist chronographs operate down to a fifth of second. Scott felt that the descent orbit insertion burn (DOI) would require a more accurate time increment, so he requested a stopwatch from Bulova that was capable of operating within a tenth of a second.
In 2012, I acquired the above Bulova 1/10 – second split hand Sports Timer directly from Dave Scott. The timer (as shown above with it’s box and accessories) was used inside the command module “Endeavor” and lunar module “Falcon.” Colonel Scott told me that this timer served “as a backup timer for the critical main burns for both spacecraft.” As such, this timer landed on the lunar surface at Hadley Apennine in 1971. This Bulova stopwatch is one of two non-Omega astronaut used watches to land upon the Moon.
In the above close up photograph of the Stopwatch, there is a slice of gray “duct” tape placed on the watch crystal at the 24 second mark. That tape marked the precise time of the Decent Orbit Insertion (DOI) burn that put the combined spacecraft (CSM and LM) into it’s lowest and final orbit prior to initiation of the lunar landing. Dave held this stopwatch and watched the seconds tick by as Jim Irwin watched the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) timer as the burn of the command module’s rocket engine came to an end. The combination of the computer timer and the stopwatch made sure that the burn ended after the correct duration. Any later ending to the burn would have resulted in an impact with the lunar surface. Timing was indeed critical.
The reserve side of the stopwatch provides us with two clues that it was Dave Scott’s personal timepiece. The first clue is the half inch sized red Velcro square in the center of the watch. Red was the color code for the mission commander’s articles such as food and personal equipment. Dave also carved his initials “DRS” at the base of the watch just above the metal loop.
Dave has noted that the timer was a back up that could be used with the rendezvous charts to complete the LM rendezvous maneuvers with the CSM in lunar orbit after the crew’s stay on the lunar surface was completed. As such, this stopwatch spent three days on the lunar surface at the Hadley Apennine landing site during the Apollo 15 mission.
Once I added this stopwatch to the collection, Dave, while on a visit to MIT, graciously stopped by our home for a visit while I was recovering from a surgery. While at our home, Dave posed for this photograph with the stopwatch.
The President’s Watch
While Omega and Bulova can claim to have watches that flew to the Moon, there was one watch that was the choice of a president during the Apollo Era.
In 1973, Paul Weitz launched along with Charles “Pete” Conrad and Joseph Kerwin as the first manned flight to the Skylab space station. History has recorded the details of the heroic and historic mission to repair and rescue the severely damaged outpost in orbit around the Earth.
During twenty-eight days of living on orbit, the Skylab I crew repaired the malfunctioning space station and began operations and experiments into truly understanding human physiology in Space.
With the completion of their mission, they splashed down in the Pacific. After recovery aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Ticonderoga, and were in route to San Diego. The White House contacted the carrier and “requested” that the crew proceed to the California “White House” at San Clemente to meet with President Richard Nixon.
The Skylab I crew arrived at the Nixon home at San Clemente in time to meet Leonid Brezhnev, who was visiting with Nixon at the time.
As part of the visit, the President presented each Skylab I crew member with an engraved watch to commemorate their historic mission to America’s 1st space station.
The watch President Nixon chose to give each crew member was a Gruen watch that was one of the few American owned watch companies surrounded in a sea of Swiss watch companies by the 1970’s.
Given the battles that were occurring between American and Swiss watch manufacturers over the ability to send a watch into Space, President Nixon chose one of the final major watch companies that resided in the United States for the watch that he would present to astronauts that were to grace his presence.
The watch shown above is one of the the Gruen Precision “25 Jewel Autowind” watches was presented to the crew as an award for their work to save the Skylab.
President Nixon had each watch engraved with the crew’s name, new rank (Paul was promoted to Captain USN after the flight), the date of the mission and the president’s name.
The above photograph shows Paul Weitz wearing the same watch approximately 40 years after he received it for his efforts during his Skylab 1 mission.
These rare and unique timepieces combine the precision of complex machinery with ethereal beauty to create watches that span the realm between engineering and art.
Time is a key element in spaceflight and in navigation and in exploration. The ability to rendezvous with another celestial body, whether it is another spacecraft or another world requires precise timing that only a well engineered and precisely built timepiece can produce for the demanding nature of sending humans into Space.