THE date was 25 May 1961. It had been about a month after the Soviet Union launched the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit, thus kick-starting the era of manned spaceflight.
At this point, it was clear the United States had fallen behind in the Space Race and then-president John F Kennedy felt compelled to make an impassioned appeal to Congress to increase NASA’s funding so that the country could catch up and eventually overtake its Eastern Bloc rival in the Race. More importantly, Kennedy proclaimed that the Americans would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.
His exhortations worked. NASA’s budget significantly increased over the next decade, reaching a high of $6 billion in 1966, which constituted close to five per cent of the country’s annual federal budget at that time.
How The Battle Was Won
One of the main reasons NASA managed to overtake the Soviet Union was interestingly enough, due to the problem of too many cooks spoiling the broth. While NASA was a single entity headed by one administrator, the USSR’s space programme had multiple parties, each with their own objectives.
While this ideological rivalry went on, another smaller yet equally important one was taking place – the battle for horological supremacy. In 1964, astronaut Donald Slayton and engineer James Ragan handed a list of 10 suggested watch manufacturers to NASA’s procurement division. The duo believed that these watchmakers had the capabilities to build a timepiece that could meet the exacting specifications needed to survive a trip to space.
Only four brands – Rolex, Longines, Hamilton and Omega – submitted watches for consideration, with Hamilton’s candidate being disqualified as it could not be worn on the wrist.
In this battle, Omega had a hidden edge. Its watch had actually flown in space before, worn by astronaut Wally Schirra during the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission two years before in 1962. Schirra had bought his own Speedmaster ref. CK 2998, which had a black aluminium bezel, for his own use.
The three finalists had to go through 10 tests, which ranged from extreme temperature swings (-18°C to 93°C) and forceful acceleration to vibrations and loud noises. Rolex’s and Longines’s watches suffered failure at various points during the process. The Omega wasn’t immune either. It gained 21 minutes during the decompression test, where it spent two hours in a vaccum heated between 71°C and 93°C. Separately, it also lost 15 minutes after the acceleration test, when it went from 1G to 7.25Gs in 333 seconds in a test that simulated the forces experienced during a rocket launch.
Of the three watches, however, only Omega’s chronograph functioned satisfactorily at the end of testing to receive NASA’s seal of approval.
The Importance Of The Chronograph
In space, a watch’s ability to tell the time is not as important as its ability to accurately time events to the second. Omega proved this point with its Speedmaster during the famous Apollo 13 mission, when an oxygen tank exploded just two days into the crew’s journey to the moon.
To preserve critical life support and communication systems, everything else had to be powered down. During the journey back to earth, two mid-course corrections were necessary, with the more critical one being the final 14-second burn needed to realign the lunar module and ensure that it could re-enter the atmosphere at the right angle of four degrees. Too steep a trajectory and the module would burn; if the angle were too shallow, the crew would bounce off the atmosphere and be lost to space. Astronaut Jim Lovell timed the burn using the Speedmaster on his wrist.
Even today, in spite of the technological advancements made in spaceflight, the Omega Speedmaster is still worn by astronauts in space.
“The watch is used as a back-up in case the astronauts lose contact with Mission Control,” explained Ragan, during my conversation with him at the Kennedy Space Centre in Orlando. In fact, according to him, astronauts still wear the Speedmaster on their space walks.
This years marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. In celebration of this milestone, Omega unveiled two limited edition Apollo 11 Speedmaster watches – one rendered completely in Moonshine Gold (below) and the other in black and grey with the same Moonshine Gold coated on the indices, hands and dial markings. The latter, which is limited to 6,969 pieces, has the iconic graphic of Buzz Aldrin descending the steps of the lunar module on its sub-dial (opening picture at the top).
Both are powered by the new Calibre 3861 movement, which is an update of its popular Cal. 1861 from the Speedmasters of yore. It has a power reserve of 48 hours and needed four years of development to meet Omega’s rigorous Master Chronometer certification standards.
The Next Chapter
As both NASA and Omega celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, perhaps it’s apt then that the space organisation announced that it was accepting President Trump’s challenge to make a return to the moon by 2024, and eventually chart a course for humankind’s first steps on Mars.
“History has proven that when we’re given a task by the president, along with the resources and the tools, we can deliver,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are committed to making this happen. We have the people to achieve it. Now, we just need bipartisan support and the resources to get this done.”
The task ahead for NASA is truly momentous, if not almost impossible, but we’re sure that it can count on Omega to be there every step of the way.