Space Watches need to be highly robust and durable watches since Space flight is widely agreed to be the most demanding test a watch can experience. The watch is subjected to a number of different stresses.
During the rocket’s liftoff and the capsule re-entry, the gravitational forces are six times greater than earths, and if the astronaut leaves the spacecraft then the watch will have to contend with the sudden and severe change in pressure caused by leaving a pressurised cabin and entering into a vacuum.
Space watches must also be able to withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations of outer space which range from -160 to +120 degrees C. Because of this Astronauts (U.S) are required to wear official space mission watches that have passed NASA’s stringent testing.
First watch on the moon – Omega Speedmaster
Definitely the most famous of space watches is The Omega Speedmaster, this is because it became the first watch to be worn on the moon when Buzz Aldrin famously landed there in 1969. Remarkably it was the only piece of equipment that wasnt specially made for use on space misssions.
Early in the 1960’s a NASA employee anonymously bought a selection of potential space watches. These were chronographs by the most well known watch brands at that time including Longines, Rolex, Bulova, Hamilton, Elgin, Benrus, Gruen, Lucian Piccard, Mido and Omega. Of all the watches NASA tested, the Omega Speedmaster was the only one to pass.
The Speedmasters first spaceflight came in October 1962 when Wally Schirra orbited the earth six times aboard the Sigma 7. The Speedmaster has had a continuous role on space flights ever since.
The Swiss watchmaker Bulova competed with Omega for a chance of becoming the first watch on the moon and although they lost they did succeed in having their electric Accutron watch movement chosen to be used in all the spacecrafts instrument panel clocks and time keeping mechanisms for missions in the 60’s and 70’s.
Nasa made this choice because at that time they were still unsure about how well a normal mechanical movement would function in zero gravity and the Accutron watch movement was the first electronic movement.
Bulova still continues to manufacture a limited edition “Astronaut” model in its Accutron line and the watch case has a Buzz Aldrin autograph, the tuning fork movement however has long since been discontinued.
The original mechanically powered Speedmaster has since been replaced by the newer quartz driven X-33 for space missions which can also display GMT time which is important because it is used as the basis of timing for all space missions.
Aswell as the latest Omega Speedmaster X-33 NASA has also granted the status of official space watches to Casio’s G-Shock and Timex’s Ironman watches.
“Houston, we have a problem”
These words marked the beginning of what was to become one of the most dramatic events in the history of space travel and also gave the Speedmaster an opportunity to play a crucial role.
On the way to the moon at a distance of 200,000 miles, Apollo 13 suffered an electrical fault which caused one of the two oxygen tanks to explode resulting in the loss of oxygen as well as electrical power. Because of this there was no onboard timing system needed to time the firing of the rockets and critical for a successful return to earth. Depending on what source you read, either The Speedmaster or a Rolex GMT master was used to time these critical rocket burns and aid in the successful return to earth. According to James Dowling & Jeff Hess’ in their book “Rolex Wristwatches” it was a Rolex GMT that Jack Swigert depended upon. However Chuck Maddox who has done exhaustive research on the subject believes it was the Speedmaster.
First Watch in Space – Pobeda Shturmanskie
Yuri Gagarin 1961Vostok I .
Although the Speedmaster was the first watch on the moon it wasn’t the first into space. That distinction goes to Yuri Gagarins Pobeda brand Shturmanskie(Navigator’s) watch that he wore when he piloted the Vostok One and became the first man in space on April 12th 1961. After Gagarin’s flight the Soviet government changed the brand name to “Poljot” meaning “Flight”.
The Shturmanskie was an understandable choice given its high quality and accuracy, it was the watch traditionally issued to graduates of the esteemed Orenberg Flight School.
Though the one issued to Gagarin was a slightly modified version with a seconds hand and hacking function so that it could be synchronized, a crucial feature for a navigators watch. Following this there were a number of Poljot chronographs that were specially made for use as space watches. The Shturmanskie is still being manufactured.
Alexi Leonov 1965 Strela chronograph Vostok II
When in 1965 Alexi Leonov left the safety of his Spacecraft for the first space walk, the Strela chronograph became the first watch to be worn in outer space.
Other Space Watches
Scott Carpenter May 24th 1962 Aurora 7
When Scott Carpenter wore his Breitling Navitimer on the Aurora 7 Mission in May 1962 it was the first (known) watch worn by an American in space.
This was the first watch used in Space featuring a 24 hour display which was useful since an astronauts day was no longer affected by the rising and setting of the sun but rather by his working and sleeping patterns.
Breitling wasnt involved in space watches again until they supplied a specially modified version of their ‘Aerospace’ watch for Franco-Russian missions between 1996 and 2001. In order that they could be worn over spacesuits they came fitted with extra-long velcro straps as well an engraved back and special logo.
John Glenn February 20th 1962 Friendship 7
John Glenn was the first American to Orbit Earth , he wore a Tag Heuer Stop Watch which had been modified with elastic bands so that it would fit over the spacesuit.
This Heuer stopwatch served as a “backup clock” for the timing instruments aboard Friendship 7 and was started manually by Glenn 20 seconds into the flight.
It is currently on display at the San Diego Air and Space Museum
So Tag Heuer became the first Swiss watch to be used in space.
You can read more about this on the Tag Heuer site.
Jack Swigert April 11, 1970 Apollo XIII
Although not a NASA certified space watch the GMT Master proved it had the ‘right stuff’ when Jack Swigert wore his Rolex GMT Master on the Apollo XIII mission in April 1970.
It was also worn by Ron Evans, Mission Command Module Pilot of Apollo XVII and Ed Mitchell of the Apollo XIV misssion also wore his Rolex GMT Master on the moon.
So we can safely say that it is a worthy inclusion on the list of space watches, not only does it have some impressive space credentials but the GMT Master was also worn by Chuck Yeager when he was the first person to pilot a fixed wing plane to the speed of sound, when no one knew whether a plane, or a human could endure such forces!