The Omega Speedmaster is steeped in history, and its journey to the moon is a well-documented, often recounted story. Its ascension to becoming NASA’s choice watch didn’t happen overnight, however, and wasn’t ever the original intention by Omega.
Omega has deep ties with sport and timing, and is the official timekeeper of the Olympic games. The Speedmaster was introduced in 1957 to bolster this timekeeping reputation, its numbered tachymeter bezel and chronograph function laid out over a clear, plain dial that allowed quick and easy use. It was originally launched with chunky broadarrow hands, which were swapped to alpha hands in 1959 and again to the traditional baton hands. It was powered by the Calibre 321, a development of a hand-wound chronograph movement produced by Lemania, who were taken over by Omega’s parent company in 1932.
In 1962, the Sigma 7 spacecraft orbited Earth six times, with astronaut Wally Schirra at the helm. Wally had taken with him his own personal Omega Speedmaster, so when NASA gathered together a selection of watches for flight-testing, it came already recommended. Amongst the brands chosen for testing were Hamilton, Longines and Rolex. The challenges the watches undertook pushed them to the very limits, measuring resilience at high and low pressure, temperatures from as low as -18° C to as high as 93° C (both in and out of water), 40G shock testing, vibration testing and noise testing. The only watch left standing was the Speedmaster.
The Speedmaster was inaugurated as ‘officially flight qualified for all manned space missions’ for the 1965 Gemini 3 mission, where it was worn on the wrists of astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young. A year later, the Speedmaster faced its next trial: a stint around the wrist of G4C space suit, worn by Ed White on the first American space walk. The watch was in use by all Gemini astronauts until the end of the program in 1966, when the word ‘Professional’ was added to the dial.
The Apollo missions continued the use of the Speedmaster, including for both the Apollo 11 moon landing and the lucky escape of the Apollo 13 crew. In 1969, the Speedmaster MkII was introduced with a revised case, bracelet and crystal, but with the astronauts of the time being very superstitious, they chose to stick with the original design. An automatic movement was developed for the Speedmaster MkIII and MkIV in 1971 and 1973, and a variety of complications also became available. The Speedmaster name was then used for watches with tuning fork and LCD quartz movements, one of the most recent models—and another watch used by NASA—being the Speedmaster X-33, an ana-digi watch used on board both the MIR and International Space Stations.
The Speedmaster name will always be synonymous with space, and deservedly so. After all, NASA would only use and continue using the very best technology available, supplied by the experts in their fields. It goes to show that Omega really is the very best thing in time and space.