When I asked legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin if there was any specific moment or situation where he his Omega Speedmaster that he remembers as significant during the Apollo 11 mission, the response I got seemed incredibly anti-climactic: “The watch that we had was based on the time back at Mission Control to be aware of what time to sleep, what time to wake up, and to keep track of the people working back home.”
Of course, if you want a heroic anecdote about the Speedmaster as some otherworldly lifesaving instrument of derring-do, its role in getting Apollo 13’s astronauts back home is well known among both watch circles and space geeks. But heroics shouldn’t completely underscore the simpler reason Aldrin and other astronauts have always needed watches in space: like you or me, astronauts have a schedule and need to know when to get up, eat, work, and phone home. As further evidence of this, earlier this year Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli told Worn & Wound that for his upcoming trip to the International Space Station, he’d be wearing not one, not two, but three watches; otherwise, he has a hard time keeping track of the different times between Italy, the USA and the ISS.
You’d think with modern computers, digital timers and atomic timekeeping, traditional analog wristwatches would no longer have a place in the final frontier, but you’d be wrong. Nespoli and other astronauts for the last 20 years have mainly used the Omega Speedmaster X-33, the Speedmaster’s quartz successor. And as recently as 2014, nearly 50 years since it was first cleared for use in space by NASA, the mechanical Speedmaster Professional has been used by Russian cosmonauts on spacewalks.
It’s fairly astounding that a 60-year-old watch is still the king of timekeeping in space, especially considering that when it was first made, in 1957, it was aimed at car enthusiasts, of all people. Since then, it’s become an icon, and though today you can buy a Speedmaster Professional that isn’t too distinct from the ones that went to space, the timepiece has certainly evolved over the years. To celebrate that evolution, I got a hands-on look at four of some of the Speedmaster’s most historically significant models, which mark distinct moments along the Speedmaster’s lifespan, from a humble diver’s chronograph of the ’50s to a deep-space timekeeping icon.
Omega Speedmaster Ref. CK2915
This is the one that started it all. The first Speedmaster from 1957 wasn’t so visually different from the later versions, but there were some notable differences, including a smaller 39mm case and a “broad-arrow” hour hand. When it launched, the Speedmaster was aimed at “men who reckon time in seconds…scientists, engineers, TV and movie directors, athletes and their coaches,” according to one early advertisement — though, more specifically, it was aimed at drivers. The ad illustrated a hypothetical scenario: two car enthusiasts taking a car for a test run and calculating an average speed of 110 mph, thanks to the tacho-productometer — which was, in reality, just what we refer to as a tachymeter scale on the bezel today. Still, it was the first time a tachymeter was featured on the bezel of a watch.
Captain Ron Evans’s Speedmaster
Because the Speedmasters used by NASA were government property, nowadays they’re bound to the Smithsonian — except this one, which became the personal watch of Ron Evans, who flew on Apollo 17 in 1972, the last manned mission to the moon. Notably, this was an additional watch (Evans was given a NASA issued Speedmaster as well) that was used in during a heat-flow experiment during the mission. Upon returning home, Evan engraved his name and the words “FLOWN IN C.S.M. TO THE MOON” on the back, and the watch remained in Evans’s family until it was sold at auction in 2009 (and again in 2015).
Omega Speedmaster Alaska Project II
Though the Speedmaster had already been cleared for official use by NASA by the late ’60s, Omega was determined to further refine the watch and create something specifically for space travel. In 1969, they created a massive, chunky titanium prototype called the “Alaska Project.” The project was eventually abandoned until 1972, when Omega brought it back with the watch shown above. The Alaska II took on a shape closer to the standard Speedmaster, but Omega created a removable red aluminum outer shell that supposedly protected the watch inside from sudden changes in temperature. Again, the Alaska Project didn’t make it past the prototype stage, though in 2008 Omega reissued the Alaska II.
Omega Speedmaster X-33 Prototype
Unlike the original Speedmaster, the X-33 — which debuted in 1998 — actually was designed with space flight in mind. Omega enlisted the help of astronaut Tom Stafford, as well as other individuals from flight squadrons like the Blue Angles and Thunderbirds, to create a series of prototypes. The final watch was tested to meet a new set of standards by NASA. These included an 80-decibel alarm louder than the standard alarms used on quartz watches (meant to be better heard in a spacecraft), accuracy to -0.3/+0.5 seconds per day and shock resistance to 3,500 G, to name a few. The final product has seen use in various space missions and has been worn aboard the International Space Station, Russian Space Station Mir and Space Shuttle Columbia.