A Brief History of the Omega Speedmaster
As one of the watch industry’s most universally loved and respected chronographs, the Speedmaster has been a constant presence in Omega’s catalog since it was first introduced more than sixty years ago. The allure and overall cool-factor of the Speedmaster far transcends the monetary value of the timepiece itself, making it a watch that has the ability to occupy a respectable place in any collection, regardless of how expensive or prestigious the other timepieces in it may be.
In 1957, Omega released a trio of professional watches, each designed for a specific use and target demographic. While the water-resistant Seamaster 300 was for SCUBA divers, and the anti-magnetic Railmaster was for individuals working in proximity to strong magnetic fields, the Speedmaster was a chronograph that was aimed at the sports and racing crowd. By using the chronograph function in conjunction with the tachymeter bezel, Speedmaster users could calculate average speed and distance based on a measured travel time.
Despite being intended for the racetrack, the Speedmaster found its greatest success with astronauts on manned space-flight missions. Although it is known as the “Moonwatch,” the Speedmaster has a history with space-exploration that pre-dates the first moon landing, and even pre-dates NASA’s official approval of the watch for use on missions.
On October 3, 1962, United States astronaut, Walter “Wally” Schirra orbited the earth six times during the Mercury Atlas 8 mission. On his wrist, he wore an Omega Speedmaster; however the watch that Schirra wore had been privately purchased, rather than issued to him by NASA. At the time, Omega had absolutely nothing to do with NASA or space exploration, so Schirra’s decision to bring his own personal watch, inadvertently resulted in the Speedmaster being the first Omega worn in space.
It was not until 1964, following a number of requests by astronauts for an official watch that could be used on space missions (and after realizing the potential hazards that could arise from individuals bringing their own personal timepieces), that NASA decided to search for a wristwatch that they could officially certify and issue to their astronauts.
NASA procured timepieces from four different manufacturers and put three of them through an extremely extensive and rigorous testing process; the fourth entry was disqualified because it was a pocket watch rather than a wristwatch like NASA has requested. The comprehensive evaluation process lasted from October 21, 1964 until March 1, 1965. When all the tests had concluded and the dust had settled, the Omega Speedmaster was the only watch to make it through all of the tests, and was subsequently qualified by NASA for all manned space missions.
Shortly thereafter, the Omega Speedmaster was photographed on the wrist of NASA astronaut, Ed White, when he became the first American to walk in space on June 3, 1965 during the Gemini 4 mission. It was not until July 21, 1969 that the Speedmaster earned its “Moonwatch” nickname, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans in history to set foot on the lunar surface, cementing the Speedmaster’s history as the “first watch worn on the moon” – an inscription that can be found on the case-backs of the contemporary Speedmaster watches that Omega produces today.
During the 1970 Apollo 13 mission, an Omega Speedmaster played a crucial role in allowing the astronauts to safely return to Earth after an oxygen tank on their craft exploded just two days into the mission. This incident is the source of the famous quote, “Houston, we have a problem” – something that probably everyone has heard before, even if they had no idea of its actual origin.
Due to the oxygen tank explosion, the astronauts on the Apollo 13 ship were forced to skip their planned lunar landing, loop around the moon, and return to Earth with their damaged craft in power-reserve mode. To conserve the Lunar Module’s life-support and communication systems until re-entry, the craft was powered down to the lowest possible levels (almost completely powered off), which placed a particular importance on mechanical devices such as the Omega Speedmaster.
During re-entry, the crew had to perform two mid-course corrections, the later of which consisted of a 14-second burn. For this maneuver, the crosshairs of a gun-sight were used to align the trajectory of the craft, while an Omega Speedmaster was used to time the duration of the controlled burn. In acknowledgment of the crucial role the watch performed during the Apollo 13 mission, NASA awarded the Speedmaster with the Silver Snoopy Award – an honor given in recognition of outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success.
Despite the advent of infinitely more accurate and durable, quartz-regulated timepieces, the hand-wound Omega Speedmaster Professional remains one of only a handful of watches that are certified for manned space flight, and remains the only wristwatch that is qualified by NASA for EVA (use outside of a space craft). Consequently, the Omega Speedmaster was a standard piece of equipment on all Skylab and Space Shuttle missions, and is still the go-to, NASA-approved wristwatch for astronauts today.
Throughout the decades, Omega has released countless variations of the Speedmaster, including a plethora of limited editions and special releases. However, despite the myriad of different Speedmaster watches with varying sizes, shapes, and movements, Omega still manufactures the classic, manually-wound Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch with a Hesalite crystal – a design that has hardly changed since the 1960s, when it became the first watch qualified by NASA for manned space-flight.
Although prices for vintage examples have significantly increased in recent years, there are still a number of different Omega Speedmaster watches that remain relatively attainable. The Speedmaster is able to occupy a proud place in any collection, as it speaks less about an individual’s financial standing, and more about their overall knowledge and interest in watches. The Omega Speedmaster is a cornerstone offering in the world of high-end timepieces, and it has earned universal respect for being a top-notch wristwatch with one of the most unique and fascinating histories of all time.
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