Sometimes you wonder what went through the minds of the designers and watchmakers involved in the development of the Omega Speedmaster back in 1956. They were instructed to create the next generation of chronographs, with superb legibility, easy to use, a reliable and precise movement, and all this wrapped in a waterproof case. The watch they created lived up to this, but little did they know at the time that the Speedmaster would also make a vital contribution to the conquest of space.
The first Speedmaster was actually part of the Seamaster collection, a model we now refer to as “Broad Arrow” for its distinct hour hand. Known as reference 2915, it redefined the design of chronographs. It combined a tri-compax dial layout with a tachymeter scale engraved on the bezel. It featured a very clean, black dial with a design that was fully focused on legibility and functionality. Details made a difference, too: Luminous compounds on the hands and indexes made it easier to read the time in low-light conditions, while the chronograph seconds hand was actually set at the same height as the bezel, making it easier for the eyes to read.
Omega worked on the project together with movement manufacture Lemania. At the time this company was a subsidiary of Omega, and its manual wind chronograph movement, caliber 321, was selected to power the Speedmaster. This reliable and precise chronograph movement was fitted with a column wheel and put in a stainless-steel case that was water-resistant to 200 feet. The development team delivered exactly the kind of watch they were asked to make, and in 1957 the very first Omega Speedmaster went up for sale.
While the Speedmaster was a successful addition to the collection of Omega, this was nothing compared to what would be in store for this model. In 1962, a group of U.S. astronauts, part of the Mercury program, bought Omega Speedmasters to accompany them on the job. They eventually requested to be issued a watch by NASA for use during training, as well as the actual space flights. As it would then become part of their official equipment, it needed to meet requirements of NASA, which were extensive, to say the least. In 1964, six different watch manufacturers were requested for quotations on one of their manual wind chronograph models. Of these six, only four responded and among them was Omega’s Speedmaster.
The next stage, before they reached a decision, were the most comprehensive series of tests ever done on a wristwatch. It then became clear how well the team from Omega and Lemania succeeded in their original assignment. The watches had to withstand the most hostile and brutal environments. The tests started off rather mildly as the watches were exposed to temperatures ranging from 71° to 93° C for two days, before being frozen to -18° C. Next, they were placed in a vacuum environment that was heated up to 93° C. Then, following test had them to be heated once more to 70° C, only to be flash frozen afterward to -18° C and repeat this sequence 15 times in a row. After that, the watches had to endure shocks up to 40 g in six different positions, take extreme high and low pressures, high-humidity and high-oxygen environments, as well as noise and vibrations tests. The results of these tests were an onslaught among the four different chronographs that participated, some even destroyed in the process. And in the end, there was only one watch that passed all the tests and met all the requirements set by NASA: the Omega Speedmaster.
On March 1, 1965, NASA declared the Speedmaster “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions.” This was just in time to accompany Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young on their Gemini 3 mission, just three weeks later. The watch that they wore was reference ST105.003, which was different from the original “Broad Arrow” by its baton hands and having a blackened aluminum insert with the tachymeter scale on it, which improved legibility. It was also this watch that was attached to the space suit of Edward White, who was the first American to do a “spacewalk” on June 3, 1965. After this, Omega decided to change the name of the Speedmaster to Speedmaster Professional.
This appeared for the first time on the dial of reference ST105.012. The main difference between this and prior models was that it had an asymmetrical case. The crown and the chronograph pushers were now tucked in the side of the case, providing more protection against impact, which is also why NASA picked this watch as official equipment for its astronauts. On July 21, 1969, this particular model would make history as the Eagle landed on the moon. However, while Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever walk on the surface of the moon, he was not wearing his Speedmaster. Due to technical difficulties with the onboard clock on the Eagle lunar landing module, he has left his watch as a backup. So it was Buzz Aldrin, stepping on the surface of the moon about 15 minutes after Armstrong, who made the Speedmaster the first watch worn on the moon. This earned the watch the nickname “Moonwatch,” and it has uniquely remained in production up until today with very little changes.
One of those changes was the upgrading of the movement. When Omega launched reference 145.022 in 1968, it was fitted with caliber 861, which is considered more robust.
The popularity of chronographs in general, and the Speedmaster especially, saw Omega expand the collection with additional models. One of them was the Speedmaster Professional Deluxe, an all-gold version of the Moonwatch. Although intended for sale, the first where presented to the astronauts who participated in the space program to celebrate the success of the moon landing. With the Speedmaster Mark II, Omega also introduced a chronograph that catered more to the style of the era, which was on the threshold of the 1970s. It was also then that the Speedmaster turned from a model into a collection of its own.
While these other Speedmasters were added to the lineup, the destiny of the Moonwatch took a dramatic turn with the Apollo 13 mission. When an explosion damaged the spacecraft, the onboard computer was unable to time the engine bursts that were needed to make re-entry possible. Apollo 13 would either have too steep of a trajectory and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere or be too shallow and bounce off it. In either case, crew and craft would be lost. The Speedmaster allowed the astronauts to time the engine bursts and Apollo 13 landed safely back on Earth. Because of the invaluable contribution of the Speedmaster in this, Omega was awarded the “Manned Flight Awareness Award,” better known as the Snoopy award.
Omega’s involvement with NASA went further than just supplying watches for the astronauts. Under the code name ALASKA, which had nothing to do with the U.S. state, Omega already started creating an even better watch for manned space mission before the moon landing of the Apollo 11. For this, Omega developed different prototypes, none that resembled the existing Speedmasters, which were sent to NASA for testing. The problem that these watches were facing was to actually surpass the original design of the Speedmaster. A fourth prototype, which followed the design of the existing Speedmaster line more carefully, seemed to be en route to possibly replace it. One focus was to protect it from the extreme heat that you can encounter in outer space. For that reason, the dial was white instead of the usual black, so it would reflect light and therefore heat. It was coated with a zinc oxide, which is highly resistant to solar radiation, making this prototype the very first Speedmaster to be fitted with a white dial. To protect the watch even more, Omega created a red anodized aluminum case that you can fit over the watch and serves as a protective heat shield. This watch would however never make it into space, because after Apollo 17 the remaining missions were canceled.
This did not mean the end of the development for the Speedmaster. Its involvement with space flight continued as the American and the Soviet space agencies started to cooperate with the Apollo-Soyuz missions. In 1978 the Speedmaster Professional was tested again for the Space Shuttle program, and its certification for all manned space flights was renewed.
Another notable milestone in the history of the Speedmaster was the “Speedmaster 125.” Released in 1973, it was created to commemorate Omega’s 125th birthday. It did so by being the very first Chronometer-certified, series-produced chronograph with automatic winding. This would introduce a new type of movement in the Speedmaster lineup, but not the only one. Also, the very first digital quartz watches entered the Speedmaster collection in the 1970s, along with the “Speedsonic” which featured a tuning fork movement.
In 1984 Omega ended the Speedmaster Mark series, with the Mark V, and in 1988 added the Speedmaster Automatic “Reduced” to the family. This watch had a smaller diameter as the original Moonwatch and combined it with an automatic movement. The 1980s saw Omega’s alliance with space continue to exist, because the Speedmaster was once again the watch of choice of cosmonauts with the launch of the MIR space station. Omega even did a long-term test by having two series of Speedmasters sent up to space to test the effect on the oils and springs inside the watch. One series stayed up in the space station for 90 days and another for a year. When both returned to Earth, Omega did a full check up on them and found performing within all parameters as they originally left the factory. In fact, Omega serviced them and sold them through its regular point of sale.
In the 1990s the renaissance of the mechanical watch was in full swing, and the Speedmaster had lost none of its original appeal. This allowed Omega to expand the collection with several models containing unique complications such as a full calendar, perpetual calendar or a rattrapante. Precious metal and gemstones were also not shunned, while limited editions highlighted the space missions the Speedmaster had accompanied the astronauts.
Those astronauts were ready for a new watch, one that was purposely designed for space flight. Although it complied with every requirement in the books of Omega, the Speedmaster Professional was not the one. For this, Omega created the Speedmaster X-33. This multifunction quartz watch was fitted with a titanium case and a very loud alarm. It had taken two years of extensive testing before the watch was introduced to the public. Although it now stands side by side with the Moonwatch in the space community and can also be selected by cosmonauts as part of their official equipment when they visit the International Space Station, it needs time to come out of the shadow of its legendary predecessor.
That legend continues even today, as the Speedmaster remains one of the pillars of Omega’s collection, while the Speedmaster Professional still has full clearance for all manned space flights. With the watch celebrating its 60th birthday this year, it is actually on a new high. Vintage Speedmasters have never been as collectible as of now, while the current collection carries on the spirit of these original models. This is not only thanks to the fact that the watch that went to the moon and is still part of Omega’s current collection, with some minor changes, but also due to the various limited editions that kept the history alive for new generations to enjoy. One can therefore say that the Speedmaster made its legacy in space to become a legend on Earth!