Author’s note: This article was written to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, Apollo 11, on July 20, 1969. It was one of the greatest events in U.S. history. Many of us can recall where we were when it happened. I was in Paris, camping across Europe with my brother, in an old Volkswagen van. We were both teenagers. Where were you?
Nearly 26 years ago I wrote an article that had a lasting impact on my life. It was published in NAWCC Bulletin and was entitled, “The Moon Watch: A History of the Omega Speedmaster Professional.”1 To my surprise it was widely read. I have finally decided to write the second part—26 years later.
I had an interest in the Moonwatch since high school and was wondering how this one watch was selected by NASA for all manned space missions and how it became the first watch worn on the Moon. I requested many documents from NASA (this was before e-mail) and contacted several astronauts personally. One of them, General Thomas Stafford, took a real interest in helping me and was invaluable in opening doors for me to contact many other astronauts. I had the good fortune to speak to these astronauts and hear their stories.
To my surprise, I found that the article had turned me into an expert of sorts on this one small piece of NASA history. Omega was not aware of the article until after it came out, and I had no sponsorship or connection with them at all. I received calls and letters from across the United States, Europe, and Asia. I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Annual Meeting of the NAWCC. After reading the article, Omega sent me a letter of appreciation. They were pleased that there was no sponsorship by the company and believed that this only added to the article’s validity. I was stunned when a month later I received was a personal letter from Hans Kuhn, President of Omega. Articles and books were published referencing my work and citing me as a “NASA historian.” As a result of writing the Bulletin article I have numerous framed, signed letters on my walls from many astronauts including Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, James Irwin, and Thomas Stafford.
Setting the Stage
An accurate review of history must include time and place. Richard Nixon was President of the United States, and NASA had been staging missions leading up to a possible lunar landing. This was to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s vision, expressed when he spoke to Congress and the country on May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”2
Each of the Apollo Missions 7 through 10 had taken the United States closer and closer to the Moon. Apollo 10 came within nine miles of the lunar surface. The crew consisted of then Colonel Thomas Patten Stafford, Commander John Watts Young, and Commander Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan. The lunar lander was not yet programmed for the landing but could get close.
Project Mercury, Gemini Missions, and Apollo 11
Early in Project Mercury,3 Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and John Glenn did not wear flight watches. The first American to wear a watch in space was Scott Carpenter on the Aurora 7 in May 1962. He wore a personally modified Breitling Navitimer. The first astronaut to wear a Speedmaster in space was Wally Schirra on Sigma 7 for the Mercury Atlas 8 mission in October 1962. Gordon Cooper followed in May 1963 and wore two watches, a Bulova Accutron on his right wrist and a Speedmaster on his left. Cooper later gave the Bulova to his cosmonaut friend Pavel Belyayev.4
During the Gemini missions (which were two-man missions), NASA was looking for a chronograph that could help astronauts keep track of elapsed time when on space walks or doing tasks outside the spacecraft. They were also looking ahead to landing on the Moon and finding a way to measure elapsed time (as well as the remaining oxygen supply in the astronaut’s backpack) when on the lunar surface. Thus began a series of rigorous tests of many of the then-available chronographs. These were secretly chosen to be off the shelf and unmodified. An oft-repeated story is that they were purchased at Corrigan’s Jewelry store in Houston, TX.4A Under the careful eye of James Ragan, they were tested for heat resistance (the lunar surface was 250°F in the sun and could be −100°F in the cold shade), pressure testing, high G loads, and stress of reentry. They were shaken on paint mixers, baked in overs, and tested in high humidity, all the while being expected to remain waterproof and accurate.5 As is common knowledge, the only watch that survived all the testing intact, off the shelf, was the Speedmaster. In March 1965 NASA announced it as “Flight Qualified For All Manned Space Missions.” It was issued to every astronaut. The Speedmaster was manually wound—there would be no battery or possibility of battery failure.
As the Apollo flights neared, there was a surprising, intense, and heated political battle over which watch would be worn on the Moon. Bulova was determined to not let a Swiss company have this right. Appeals were made to Congress to pass the Buy American Act, which stated that at least 51% of any timing device chosen would have to be built in the United States. On the board of Bulova was General Omar Bradley, a five-star general from World War II, whose influence was strong in this regard (he was also friends with General Scott, astronaut Dave Scott’s father). Omega did comply. The crystals were shipped from Switzerland to the Star Watch Co. (no longer in business) in Michigan. The completed case and crystals were then shipped to the Hamilton Watch Co. in Lancaster, PA, for inspection and testing. The case and crystals were then shipped to Switzerland, where the movements were installed and the entire watch was subjected to final inspection and environmental testing (From a personal letter, Terrance Finn, Office of Legislative Affairs, NASA to John Wydler, House of Representatives, November 16, 1978. [NASA Archives]). However, Bulova was still not pleased and said that it would sell its watches to NASA for $1 each. Omega countered by offering the Speedmaster to NASA for 1 cent each; thus, they were the lowest bidder and granted exclusive rights for the watches’ use on all Apollo flights. Meanwhile, General Scott gave a Bulova chronograph to his son, astronaut Dave Scott.
After Apollo 11 landed, Neil Armstrong noticed the mission elapsed timer was not operating. This was not surprising given the very intense vibrations on lift-off. When preparing for his historic walk, he thus took off his Speedmaster and placed it on the instrument panel inside the lunar lander so as to keep track of elapsed time.6 Thus, he did not wear a watch on the moon walk. That distinction went to Buzz Aldrin, who had his watch Velcro-strapped to the outside of his suit on his left forearm—it was his watch that was the first watch on the Moon. Sometime later, when being transferred to the Smithsonian, this watch disappeared and has never been recovered.
In November 1969, Omega presented 18-kt. solid gold Speedmaster Professionals to the Apollo astronauts. The watches were personally engraved to each astronaut and also with the following engraving: “To mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time.”
Apollo 12 Through 17
Apollo Missions 12 through 17 had their own unique challenges, each involving a few highlights with their watches. On Apollo 13 an oxygen tank ruptured and threatened the mission and the lives of the crew. Astronaut Jack Swigert did indeed use his Speedmaster to accurately time the 13-second rocket burn that would slingshot them around the Moon and back to Earth.
Apollo 15 saw Dave Scott and Jim Irwin walk and drive on the Moon. This was the first mission to have the lunar rover. Both men wore Speedmasters on the Moon. Years later it would be revealed that Commander Dave Scott had another watch in the pocket of his space suit. This was never declared in his personal preference kit, which is a small bag in which each astronaut could bring a few personal items. As it turned out Scott had brought with him, without any authorization or NASA awareness, a Bulova chronograph. Before the last moonwalk he retrieved this watch and put it in an outside pocket of the spacesuit. During the walk, he stated that the crystal of the Speedmaster popped off. He just happened to have another chronograph with him, and it happened to be a Bulova.
Because this watch was not official NASA property and because NASA was unaware of its existence, Dave Scott did not have to return this watch to NASA when he returned to Earth (all astronauts had to return their Speedmasters to NASA). When NASA finally discovered what had happened, they forbade Bulova from using this as marketing material (as Omega had exclusive rights). Nevertheless, Omega had to change their marketing slogan from, “The first and only watch worn on the moon,” to, “The first watch worn on the moon.” In 2015, Dave Scott sold this Bulova chronograph at auction for $1.3 million.7 Bulova now has a replica “moon” chronograph for sale. In an ironic twist, Mr. Scott is suing Bulova and Kay Jewelers for mentioning his name, apparently unauthorized, when marketing this chronograph.8
The last Apollo mission to the Moon was Apollo 17, in 1972. During that mission, Eugene Cernan became “the last man to walk on the moon.” On Apollo 17 Cernan wore the same flight watch he wore on Gemini 9. It is very well worn and scratched, and it is proudly displayed in the Omega Museum in Bienne Biel, Switzerland.
The Space Shuttle and Beyond
It was 9 years later, in 1981, that the Space Shuttle first flew. Since that time the Speedmaster has been worn in space on many, many occasions. It has been worn inside the Space Shuttle and on spacesuits during extra vehicular activity (EVA; also commonly called space walks). Astronauts have also worn their Speedmasters for work duties outside the Shuttle, such as repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.
Following the Shuttle came the International Space Station with its ever-changing rotation of international astronauts. Many different types of watches are worn on the Space Station, including but not limited to the Speedmaster.
It seems that NASA had not planned well for what was next. Since June 2011 (the last Shuttle flight), the United States has not had the ability to put a man or woman in orbit. A sobering state of affairs for what was once the most powerful and impressive space-faring nation. NASA has had to employ the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station; one seat was $75 million in 2017.9
As the Shuttle program ended and talk of Mars became more frequent, Omega developed a new Speedmaster, one that they hoped would serve for flights to Mars. The Speedmaster X-33 Gen 1 was first issued in the 1990s. Initially there were some issues with reliability and a Gen 2 model was issued, the X-33 Skywalker. This is a blue-faced high-tech timepiece, with digital and analog time readings. Its quartz movements are contained within a titanium 45-mm case. Many chronograph features include elapsed time (length of the mission so far), countdown timer (to reentry or any timed experiment), perpetual calendar, three alarms (can be set for different experiments), and multiple time zone settings (e.g., Houston and Hawaii). This Gen 2 model has proved useful and reliable on many space missions.
In 2012 Omega introduced a new high-end quartz watch, the Spacemaster Z-33. Not exactly marketed as a Speedmaster Professional, the Spacemaster has its own niche. Once again there are many high-tech multiple functions. It is slightly thicker and sits slightly higher on the wrist than the X-33. The Z-33 has a double caseback, allowing some room for louder alarm functions, as at times the cockpit in an aircraft or spacecraft can be a noisy environment. Once marketed as a pilot’s watch, the name and its functions clearly puts it in the space use realm as well.
Twenty years ago it would have been hard to predict the rise and success of commercial space flight. Up until recently all American space flights had been developed, launched, and monitored by NASA. Now Space X (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) have their own private rocket manufacturing, spacecraft and spacesuit development, and launch facilities. These are private businesses started with no tax dollars and now compete for contracts with NASA. Each plans to work with NASA in astronaut training and crewed and un-crewed missions to the International Space Station and beyond. Each has become a well-recognized and respected company in aerospace design and spaceflight.
Through it all, Omega continues to make the Moonwatch in many different styles. It reminds me of the Fender Stratocaster and its dozens of versions. A glance through the Omega catalog/website describes an amazing array of Speedmaster Professionals, including cases made of steel or titanium, crystals of hexalite AU: AU: Do you mean hesalite or are both terms correct? and sapphire, as well as faces and bezels of different composite mixtures. The Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon also comes in white. Commemorative watches of each Apollo mission have been developed.
Many wonderful watches have proved successful in spaceflight, including the Breitling Aerospace. Scott Kelly, who has worn the Speedmaster on many Shuttle flights, is now ambassador for Breitling.10 The Aerospace is a fine timepiece, no mistaking that. However, in my pedestrian opinion, it is really complicated to operate. Changes in time, time zones, and all other functions are done by movements of the small crown. I find it perplexing, despite their directions that describe it as being “quite simple.”
Despite all this innovative competition, Swiss-made luxury watches are still among the best-selling watches in the world. Chronext, a leading seller of fine watches, has 26,000 watches for sale on-line. In 2017, Swiss-made watches still dominated. Of the top 10 best-selling watches for Chronext, Rolex had three or four; the top two were the Omega Seamaster Diver 300 M and the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional.11 For the first half of 2018, the top three were Omega Speedmaster, Omega Seamaster, and a Rolex. Thanks, James Bond and NASA.
While I was writing this article my wife asked me, “Why do you think the Speedmaster Professional is still so popular?” That’s easy…… ‘because it works. It works under great stresses and in everyday wear. It is tested, reliable, accurate, and …has the Legacy.” In the end, excellent engineering, reliability, and simplicity of use wins. I have had mine for 28 years, have had two cleanings, and wear it frequently. It is a cool-looking watch with an unmatched history. This is why many refer to it as the most famous or most iconic chronograph in the world.12
In the past 25 years watches have changed so much.13 Watches with multiple functions are imported from all parts of the United States, Japan, and Europe. The advent of smartwatches has added new dimensions to the wristwatch. We now how have watches that can keep track of our metabolic data, talk to us, take pictures and videos, and upload credit card data and EKG results. There are watches that are plastic and inexpensive, luxury watches of fine engineering, and watches that are solar powered. There are watches with GPS, those that are resistant to amazing G loads, ones that are built from rocket parts, and watches that have built-in emergency locaters with loud alarms. Dick Tracy, welcome to the future.
We also need to remember that it is not just the astronauts who are passing through time; we are all passing through time. As of this writing it is sad to note that all of the Mercury astronauts have died. Of the 12 men who walked on the Moon, only four remain: Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke, and Harrison Schmidt.
Predicting the future is risky, yet sometimes interesting. Spaceflight has now inspired three generations of school children. This may well be NASA’s greatest legacy. Many of the boys and girls who will become future astronauts are still in early childhood or unborn. I volunteer-teach the history of spaceflight at local elementary schools. It is a privilege to use spaceflight as a vehicle for inspiration and education.
We all wonder where space exploration will take us in 25 years. We wonder what watches of the future will look like and how they will work—what wonders await us. Nonetheless, wherever we are in future spaceflight, I bet we will find that a model of the Omega Speedmaster Professional will be there, too.
The author has no business or financial relationship with Omega. However, he does enjoy a long-term appreciation for the company. The author thanks Petros Protopapas, Director of the Omega Museum, Bienne-Biel, Switzerland, for his inspirational and educational tour of the museum. The author also especially thanks the NAWCC, Inc. and Major Thomas Stafford. None of the above would have happened without you.
Notes and References
1. Nelson A. The moon watch: a history of the Omega Speedmaster Professional. NAWCC Bulletin 1993;35(February):33–38.
2. Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. Chapter 2.1 “I Believe We Should Go to the Moon,” by Robert R. Gilruth. https://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-2-1.html.
3. Project Mercury was the first man-in-space program for the United States. The project began in 1958 and was completed in 1963. Six manned flights took place between 1961 and 1963. Read more at nasa.gov, https://tinyurl.com/krp959x.
4. Personal correspondences with Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton all in 1991.
4A. For both sides of the story, please read https://www.gentlemansgazette.com/omega-speedmaster-watch-guide/ and https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/all-the-watches-worn-by-astronauts-in-space
5. “The man who tested the Moonwatch for NASA.” WatchTime Middle East. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://tinyurl.com/y8qkf5f8. The reader is also encouraged to visit YouTube and search for “James Ragan NASA.”
6. Armstrong N. Personal correspondence to the author, July 1992, which also included copies of the Mission Reports.
7. Clymer B. “Astronaut Dave Scott’s Bulova, Worn On The Moon, Sells For $1.3 Million.” Hodinkee. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/moon-watch-sells-for-$1million
8. “Judge finds Apollo astronaut can sue over marketing of replica watch.” collectSpace. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://tinyurl.com/y7g8rt37
9. Davis J. How much does space travel cost? nbcnews. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/how-much-does-space-travel-cost-ncna919011
10. Scott Kelly holds the record for the most days (342) spent in space by a U.S. astronaut. His book, Endurance: My Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, is a great read. In it, he describes a grueling daily grind of endurance aboard the International Space Station.
11. Wallis J. “The top ten best selling watches at Chronext in 2017.” Chronext. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://www.chronext.com/journal/stories/the-top-ten-best-selling-watches-at-chronext-in-2017
12. “8 Most iconic chronographs of all time.” Montredo. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://www.montredo.com/en/watch-magazine/8-most-iconic-chronographs-of-all-time-
13. For a fine review of this topic please see Jaye’s Watch and Clock Bulletin article and the other entries in his series: Jaye R. Progression of wristwatch styles: from bracelet watches to smart watches. Watch & Clock Bulletin 2018;60(Nov/Dec):506–513. I encourage readers to jot their ideas down and write an article about a wristwatch topic you find remarkable. The Watch & Clock Bulletin is always seeking topics of interest and history.
14. A clarification on the Omega “Mark” series. The term “Professional” appears on some and not on other models. The later models of Mark III have the OSP; earlier ones do not. It is uncertain how or why. The Mark IIs from 1973 some have OSP and some only have OS Automatic. This was inconsistent. It seems to the author that Omega decided, after a 3-year run of the Mark II, to keep the OSP as a legacy brand and leave it on the original looking Moonwatches.
Adams A. “Omega Spacemaster Z-33 watch review. June 24, 2013.” ABlogtoWatch. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://www.ablogtowatch.com/omega-spacemaster-z-33-watch-review/.
Davenport C. “‘We shall return’: Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon. There was no return.” The Washington Post, December 14, 2017, on-line edition.
Dezentjé P. “Speedy Tuesday–digital revolution: Speedmaster X-33 Skywalker and earlier generations. July 18, 2017.” Fratello Watches. Accessed on January 3, 2019. https://www.fratellowatches.com/speedmaster-x-33-skywalker-earlier-generations/ Gilruth RR. Apollo expeditions to the moon. Chapter 2.1 “I Believe We Should Go to the Moon.” Accessed December 20, 2018. https://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-2-1.html.
Maksel R. The watches that went to the Moon. Air and Space Magazine. December 2015. https://www.airspacemag.com/space/space-timekeepers-180957295/ Singleton M. “Despite the smartwatch, the clock hasn’t stopped for mechanical watches.” The Verge.https://theverge.comcircutgreaker/2017/5/9/15584234.
About the Author
Alan A. Nelson is a husband,father, and a board-certified psychiatrist in Carbondale CO. He is an original member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. He loves living in the Rockies and enjoys skiing, snow-shoeing, bike–riding, and playing the guitar. He has had a passion for space flight since childhood. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.