In the mid-1950s, auto racing was enjoying worldwide popularity, and watch companies seized on this by selling automotive-themed wristwatches. With tachymeter-calibrated bezels and perforated leather racing straps, these chronographs captured the spirit of the Mille Miglia and LeMans for Walter Mittys in their wood-paneled wagons. The Swiss brand OMEGA introduced its own motorsports wristwatch, the Speedmaster, in 1957, the same year ground was broken for the Daytona Speedway.
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The Speedmaster was a handsome watch, big for its day with a 39mm diameter; inside ticked a sturdy, hand-wound chronograph movement developed a decade earlier by Frederic Piguet for Lemania and modified by OMEGA. At the time, the Speedmaster wasn’t OMEGA’s best seller, but it filled a niche in the brand’s lineup. No one could have known that this humble watch would become one of the most enduring and famous wristwatches of all time.
Though OMEGA has tinkered with the watch, when it came time for NASA to re-qualify a watch for manned space missions, it was still only the original Speedmaster Professional, unchanged since 1965, that passed.
In the early days of the American space program, NASA didn’t have an approved mission watch. The astronauts were recruited from the pool of hotshot test pilots, most of who could be identified by their aviator sunglasses, crewcuts and oversized chronographs. Given their penchant for driving fast cars, these pilots often chose the emblematic sports chronographs, which could prove equally useful in a cockpit. As Tom Wolfe wrote in his epic profile of the Mercury space program The Right Stuff, “These terrific wristwatches were practically fraternal insignia among the pilots”.
When the Mercury program started putting men in orbit, the astronauts largely chose their own watches to wear. John Glenn strapped a Heuer stopwatch to his wrist and Scott Carpenter wore a specially-modified Breitling known as the Cosmonaute. But by the 1960s, NASA saw a need to qualify every piece of vital equipment in the capsule — and the wristwatch was one of them. Wally Schirra had already worn his own OMEGA Speedmaster on his Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1962, and it was included in a quiver of chronographs selected by NASA for rigorous testing. Subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations, violent shocks, vibrations, vacuum and humidity, the Speedmaster outperformed watches from the likes of Rolex, Wittnauer and Longines to be named NASA’s approved timepiece. It was March 1st, 1965.
By the fall of that year, the Speedmaster had grown in size to 41 millimeters and had added “Professional” to its name. It had also become the first watch to experience the extreme environment of space: Ed White performed a spacewalk with the newly approved Speedmaster Professional strapped to the outside of his spacesuit. A legend was born, one that OMEGA used to great effect in its advertising, as it still does today. The watch accompanied all American astronauts through the Gemini program and on into Apollo, reaching the zenith of its prowess on July 20th, 1969, when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon.
In one of the many bits of lore that surround the Speedmaster Professional, the first watch worn on the Moon was not on the wrist of the first man to step foot, but on the wrist of the second. As the story goes, when Commander Neil Armstrong was preparing to leave the lunar module, he noticed that the electronic onboard clock had malfunctioned. He decided it would be prudent to leave his wrist chronograph in the craft in case it was needed later. So while his Speedmaster humbly did duty as a backup instrument, it was the Speedmaster on Buzz Aldrin’s wrist that became the “first watch worn on the moon”, a slogan OMEGA started engraving on the casebacks of all subsequent Speedmaster Professionals.
Manual-wound Calibre 1861. Rhodium-plated. Power reserve: 48 hours.
Hour/minute/second. Elapsed time: hours, minutes, seconds.
Stainless steel case with fixed tachymeter bezel. Case diameter 42mm, lug width 20mm. Inner soft iron anti-magnetic cover.
Stainless steel screw-in with OMEGA hippocampus and commemorative text.
Domed armored Hesalite (acrylic).
Water resistant to 5 bar, 50 meters.
Stainless steel bracelet.
Months later, as the U.S. basked in the glow of its space race victory, Aldrin was asked to send his Speedmaster Professional to the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. The watch that made it all the way to the Moon and back never did make it across the country to the museum. It was lost in the mail, or stolen, and is still missing to this day. Watch collectors have speculated as to its whereabouts ever since.
In a further chapter to the Speedmaster’s already considerable legend, in April of 1970, astronaut Jack Swigert used its chronograph function to time a critical engine burn to align the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft as it hurtled back to Earth. With the ship’s electronics turned off to conserve power, an operation that required a less than 10% margin of error was left to the precision of a hand-wound watch movement that had its origins in 1947. As most everyone knows, the maneuver worked, and the crew made it back to Earth unscathed. So appreciative of the Speedmaster was NASA that it endowed OMEGA with its “Snoopy Award,” an honor not bestowed lightly.
OMEGA has tinkered with the Speedmaster several times in the years since it was flight-qualified by NASA. The Mark II version was given a new case shape, and the Mark IV was fitted with a self-winding movement for the first time. But when it came time for NASA to re-qualify a watch for manned space missions, it was still only the original Speedmaster Professional, unchanged since 1965, that passed.
There’s not one characteristic about the Speedmaster Professional that made it such a perfect astronaut’s watch. Its dial is highly legible, with white-on-black markings, stick hands and a balanced subdial layout. But the tachymeter scale on its bezel is largely vestigial and ironic, given that it is calibrated for measuring a car’s speed over a one-kilometer distance, up to a speed of 310 MPH; it would be of little use to an astronaut traveling at 17,000 miles per hour while in orbit. Its hand-wound mechanical movement, designed the year before Chuck Yeager broke Mach 1, is nothing special to look upon, but proved to be sturdy enough to keep accurate time under extremely brutal conditions in the test lab and in space.
Ultimately, the OMEGA Speedmaster Professional is more than the sum of its parts. There is something almost poetic about the fact that, as NASA enters a new era of priorities and goals, this anachronistic timepiece, created to appeal to motorsports enthusiasts at the height of the Cold War, remains flight-qualified for all manned space missions — no matter where they take us.