The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch
Some readers of The Jewel may be aware of our local watch club, the Winnipeg Watch Enthusiasts. As one of the founders of the group, I have met lots of people who are passionate about their love of watches and timepieces. This past fall, we have celebrated 5 years and 340 members, and we are always happy to welcome new members to our group! Knowing that passion, IJL approached me for a contribution to The Jewel, and I am honoured to be asked and only too happy to provide!
As a collector of timepieces, I am interested in several makes and models of watches, both new and vintage. There are many iconic models that become objects of pursuit for enthusiasts (“grail pieces”), ranging from the inexpensive (for example, Casio G-Shock pieces) to the extremely valuable (witness the recent sale at auction of Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” model for more than $17 million dollars). One model that has fascinated and attracted me (and other watch enthusiasts for decades) is the Omega Speedmaster. This line of manually wound chronographs is now 60 years old, being introduced in 1957, and marketed initially as an aid for “sportsmen, auto racers, and engineers”. The original model, the CK2915, had all the features one would want in a “tool watch” - large dial, highly visible hands and subdials for measuring elapsed seconds and minutes, and a tachymeter measurement along the bezel (to measure the speed of an object). It became a very popular watch with many people, including military pilots and engineers of all types.
The Space Race
The late 1950s saw the beginning of the “Space Race”, and as NASA progressed in its quest for the moon, it realized that a versatile and reliable timepiece was needed for the astronauts to complete the myriad tasks necessary for takeoff, spaceflight, landing and return. As early as 1962, a Speedmaster was taken into space; it was the personal watch of Walter “Wally” Schirra onboard Sigma 7 (this model, a CK2998, would be honoured by Omega 50 years later as the “First Omega in Space”). In 1964, NASA put out a call to several watch manufacturers for suitable models; only four manufacturers - Rolex, Longines, Hamilton, and Omega - submitted timepieces (one was a pocket watch!). The watches were put through several tests, including extremes of temperature (-18C to +93C), a high-pressure environment, an extreme oxygen atmosphere, and shock/acceleration/vibration to simulate the harsh environment of space and rocket launch and landing. Only one watch passed all these tests, the Omega Speedmaster. NASA ordered several for the Gemini and Apollo programs. Like Wally Schirra, many astronauts already trusted their “Speedys”, having purchased them for use as test pilots and engineers. In fact, several space flights had astronauts wearing two watches, their own Speedmasters and those of NASA! The Apollo 11 moon landing demonstrated the ability of humans to conquer those challenges of space, but also created the legend of the “Moonwatch”, with both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin using their Speedmasters while on the moon. In fact, all those who have ever stepped foot on the moon have worn Speedmasters. After Apollo 11, all Speedmasters had the following engraved on the back of the case: “The First Watch Worn on the Moon”. Since the 1970s, it now reads: “Flight Qualified by NASA for all Manned Space Missions - The First Watch Worn on the Moon”
The Speedmaster also was a life-saver for those astronauts of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. As their ship approached the moon, an explosion damaged the command module, necessitating the astronauts turn around and return. The crippled space capsule required the use of rockets to redirect the spacecraft for its trip through the atmosphere without burning up. No timers or instruments in the module were working, so the astronauts used their Speedmaster chronographs to precisely time exactly 14 seconds of rocket burn to aim their ship and permit a safe return to earth. This vital piece of the story is even demonstrated in the Ron Howard-Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 (1995).
The Speedmaster line continues to be manufactured today, with many variations and limited editions commemorating seminal events of NASA and International space programs (Gemini, Apollo, Soyuz and even the Last Man on the Moon). However, the manual wind Moonwatch is still available and is the most popular watch in the Omega catalog; little has changed from its inception 60 years ago. My Moonwatch has its own significance, commemorating a special wedding anniversary. This particular model comes with a red and white racing motif on the dial (seen below), which brings to mind another Trip to the Moon, albeit only found in comic books. That is a story for another day.
Speedy Tuesday Magazine, Fratellowatches, May 2017.
Moonwatch Only by G Rossier and A Marquiré, Watchprint.com, La Croix, Switzerland, 2014.