THE OMEGA SPEEDMASTER PROFESSIONAL
Over the past five decades, few things in American history have generated more interest and pride than the manned space program. The buzz and excitement of this extraordinary human endeavour, inspired by the eloquence of a young President in his stirring speech before a special joint session of Congress, made a nation focus on the race to the moon as being an achievable and desirable goal both as a demonstration of national will and the technological capability of the United States.
Manned space flights placed great reliance on the skills of many individuals, not least the astronauts themselves and they in turn, having to manage time carefully have come to rely on the Speedmaster Professional as an invaluable and dependable tool.
First manufactured in 1959, the Speedmaster Professional was first flight tested in space by Walter Schirra aboard Sigma 7, October 1962. It ran flawlessly and was used as backup to the on-board clock
On the last Mercury Mission, the Speedmaster was used to time the firing sequence of the retro rockets for re-entry, an exercise which would prove to be crucial some years later. Until then of course, the astronauts never left the protective environment of their spacecraft and more importantly from a horological perspective, the need for a flight-qualified watch for use in space had not till then materialised.
With the Gemini and Apollo programs, astronauts would also need wrist timing devices to help them with EVA activities, such as spacewalks, photographic timing exposures, and timing fuel cell purges. Such a watch should be able to operate in the vacuum of space where there exists wide variances in temperature and pressure.
Hence in 1962, NASA began the search for a watch that could be worn by astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo programs. NASA purchased watches from several manufacturers which were then subjected to a series of rigorous tests. The only watch that survived and met the criteria set by these tests was the Omega Speedmaster Professional. It was nothing more than a standard, production line model which was purchased over-the-counter, incognito by an employee of NASA, at Corrigans, a Houston jewelry store.
NASA then chose the Omega Speedmaster Professional as the official chronograph for the space program in 1965. With the first Gemini flight, the Speedmaster Professional became part of the standard equipment issued to the astronauts. The watch was worn on the outside of the pressure suit, secured by a black velcro band. It was worn during the first walk in space by an American, Edward White, in 1965. Indeed two watches were worn by each Gemini astronaut for the purpose of timing different tasks.
Due to its performance and reliability, the Speedmaster Professional was selected again as the official chronograph by NASA for Project Apollo. Again, most astronauts wore two watches during spaceflight. One watch was set on Mission Elapsed time (MET) and the other was set on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or Houston time. The watch soon became the popular watch by choice of astronauts for their daily use and work in the space flight simulators.
There was growing opposition though to the use of Swiss chronographs in the American space program. Most vocal among the detractors was the Bulova Watch Company.
Nevertheless because of its proven ruggedness, reliability and suitability to the task and the fact that it outperformed all the other watches tested, the Speedmaster became the official chronograph for every Apollo mission.
There had been interesting discussion as to who in fact wore the first watch on the moon. Given that there was a failure of the timer in the lunar module and that it could not be restarted, Neil Armstrong left his watch on board the Lunar Module as a backup. Thus, the first watch worn on the moon was worn by Buzz Aldrin.
One of the most significant of contributions the Speedmaster Professional made to the Apollo program was to take place during the Apollo 13 flight in April 1970. An on-board explosion of an oxygen tank in the service module left no electrical power in the Command Module or Service Module except for emergency re-entry power. With the on-board computerized timing devices inoperative, the crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haies, and Jack Swigert had to use the Lunar Module for survival and this included powering down everything in the Lunar Module. The Lunar Module was designed to provide approximately two days of electrical power but this then had to last the five days for the return to earth. The only electrical equipment left on in the Lunar Module was a radio receiver. Denied the use of on-board computers and their associated timing devices, the crew had to use their Speedmaster Professional for both the timing and interval of thrust for critical engine burns as they rounded the moon and set a course for home.
Indeed, in respect of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, the astronauts had a time window of 14 seconds with a 10% margin of error. Any deviation would have sent the vessel into the infinity of space. Jim Lovell and Fred Haise piloted the spacecraft manually, while Jack Swigert timed the duration of the correct burn required with his Speedmaster Professional. With only the ticking of their watches breaking the dramatic silence, the crew successfully pulled away from lunar orbit and returned to Earth.
In recognition of the role the Speedmaster Professional played in their survival, the astronauts with NASA, created The Snoopy Award
Apollo 17 became the last manned lunar landing and was scheduled for December 1972. Once again the Bulova Watch Company became increasingly concerned to have its’ chronograph used for this final manned lunar mission. Representations were made to the special assistant to the President at the White House from Bulova indicating their displeasure with the use of Swiss chronographs in the American space program. Indeed Bulova insisted that NASA follow a “ Buy American ” policy
Eventually, it was decided by James Fletcher, the Administrator of NASA, that if a suitable Bulova chronograph could be found, it would be used on the last Apollo mission. The astronauts responded by stating that if they were forced to wear a Bulova, then they would also wear the Omega as "insurance."
Nevertheless in August 1972, 16 manufacturers were notified by NASA that the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) planned to establish a Qualified Product List for possible future procurement of astronaut watches. However in tests, the Speedmaster Professional again proved to be superior with the final lunar mission being commemorated by the Apollo 17 caseback
The Speedmaster while NASA's choice for use on manned space flights also came to the notice of Soviet astronauts who appreciated its qualities when they discovered it during the Apollo-Soyuz link-up in 1975.
In 1976, the issue of timepieces for astronauts was raised again when Bulova became interested in supplying watches for the Space Shuttle missions so once again, NASA initiated a competitive solicitation with the result that in September 1978, chronograph watches wishing to be considered for the space shuttle program underwent yet another round of space flight environmental testing.
The testing was carried out by two independant laboratories, one in Switzerland - the Neuchatel Observatory and the other in the US - Approved Test Laboratories of Chatsworth in California
Omega submitted 3 different models of watches for the tests : the Speedmaster Professional (cal 861) the Speedmaster "125" (cal 1041) and the Speedsonic (cal tuning fork 1255)
Once again, the Omega Speedmaster professional chronograph proved superior to the other chronographs tested. It met all environmental requirements, had the highest technical score, and was offered at the lowest price. Therefore, the Omega Speedmaster was accepted for procurement. The watch was offered to NASA at the cost of $0.01 per watch. NASA purchased 56 watches.
In April 1981 therefore, STS-1, the first shuttle mission, was launched with Commander John Young wearing the Speedmaster Professional.
Now that the shuttle flights have become operational, there are no longer requirements by NASA for specific watches to be worn during shuttle missions with the exception of extravehicular activity since all astronauts are confined within the pressurized environment of the shuttle. Four watches are now flight-certified for use on board the space shuttle. Nevertheless, the Speedmaster continues to be used by many of the shuttle astronauts. Perhaps the final word on the regard with which the Speedmaster is held by astronauts is best put by Stephanie Walker, subsystem manager for flight crew equipment at Johnson Space Center who says "It's a constant favorite even though it has a standard face with hands instead of a digital readout. It's basic and simple, and many pilots and commanders prefer it because they can time their manouvers accurately with it."
All NASA-issued watches are deemed to be government property and must be turned in once astronauts return to Earth. Astronauts are permitted to check the watches out before launch, take them home to familiarize themselves the watch's operation. This is however not a policy which has always been observed by NASA. We know for instance that the late Edward White’s Speedmaster which survived that tragic fire on board Apollo 1 was given to his widow and there are reports that some astronauts wre allowed to retain their Speedmasters. Indeed, astronauts were allowed to retain their Speedmasters following missions until the loss of a watch in transit forced to General Accounting Office to require all astronauts surrender their issued watches to NASA. The following however are the known current resting place of various NASA-issued timepieces
Number Mission Crewman Last Known Location
044 Apollo 8 Bill Anders U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis
060 Apollo 8 Jim Lovell Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
027 Apollo 10 Tom Stafford National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
046 Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
073 Apollo 11 Mike Collins National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
057 Apollo 12 Thingy Gordon The Omega Museum, Bienne, Switzerland
068 Apollo 13 Fred Haise Penn-Harris-Madison Planetarium, Mishawaka, Indiana
075 Apollo 14 Alan Shepard Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson
077 Apollo 14 Ed Mitchell US Astronaut Hall of Fame, Titusville
045 Apollo 15 Al Worden on loan from Worden to the Smithsonian
047 Apollo 15 Jim Irwin Penn-Harris-Madison Planetarium, Mishawaka, Indiana
061 Apollo 17 Ron Evans Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson
Of all the watches that have been transported to space and back, the most famous one is probably that which was first worn on the moon. Indeed, Buzz Aldrin’s watch. However, its’ whereabouts are not known with certainty since it vanished when in the process of being transported to the Smithsonian Institution.
It was believed to have surfaced in court around 2003 when Stephen Morely, a retired businessman in Long Beach filed a law suit in the US District Court in San Diego in an attempt to verify its’ authenticity and ownership. Mr Morely said that he had purchased the watch for $175 in 1991 having seen it in an advertisement in a California circular. Curious about its’ history after a collector offered him $1,000 for it, he checked NASA’s archives and believed it to have been the one issued for the Apollo 11 mission. Morely also claimed that the watch bore the serial number 043.
NASA claimed that if it was indeed the watch worn by Buzz Aldrin, then it rightly belonged to the government while Buzz Aldrin’s lawyer said that his client would have liked the watch to be returned to him. Eventually, following “intensive investigation”, NASA concluded that the watch in Morely’s hands was not that which was issued to Buzz Aldrin. Indeed speculation surrounds the watch to this day and Buzz Aldrin's first watch on the moon may well be described as the “ Holy Grail “ of watches.
My long and boring article which was first posted on the original WTF site in the autumn of 2006 is not intended as an exhaustive account of the Omega Speedmaster and its’ use in space. It is merely a personal appreciation for a watch that must be the one most steeped in history and which I hope will find its’ way on to my wrist one fine day and for $0.01- I wish!!!
With grateful thanks to the following resources for making my essay possible Alan A Nelson, Chuck Maddox, collectSpace, Expeditionexchange, Jean-Michel, NASA, SignonSanDiego
Be well Pals