Watches You Should Know
This Mechanical Watch Was Developed for the Chinese Space Program
If you’ve never heard of the mechanical chronograph watch made specially for China’s space program and worn during the nation’s first spacewalk, that wouldn’t be surprising, but relative obscurity just makes something more fun to discover. The Fiyta Spacemaster not only has a cool story behind it, but it’s crammed with specialized features and details designed for use in harsh celestial conditions. The “Fiyta Extravehicular Space Watch,” as it has also been called, is a watch to fully geek out on, and would probably pair well with freeze-dried astronaut ice cream.
In 2008, taikonaut and ex-fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang spent about 15 minutes outside the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft far above the earth, during which time he retrieved materials for testing and waved a Chinese flag for the cameras. He did all this with a Fiyta watch wrapped around the sleeve of his spacesuit. Despite making history during the country’s first successful spacewalk, only a very limited number of commemorative watches were released to the public to commemorate the occasion. Zhai Zhigang had a massive 54mm-wide watch made of titanium on his arm, and 53 of this exact model were made — 3 of which were worn by the 3 taikonauts aboard the Shenzhou 7 themselves. In addition, 699 pieces were made at a relatively more wearable 44mm wide in stainless steel for the general pubic.
Fiyta sells a large number of mass-produced and affordable watches in mainland China, but the company exists under the state-owned aerospace and defense conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). Alongside Fiyta watches, the group’s other subsidiaries are producing things like fighter jets, bombers, helicopters, transport aircraft, civilian aircraft, and more. If that’s not marketing gold for a watch company, what is? Moreover, Fiyta has continually supplied the watches for China’s manned space missions.
Fiyta worked with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Astronaut Center of China (ACC) to engineer the Spacemaster for the extreme rigors of outer space and the three-man crew’s working environment, including for blastoff and re-entry to earth. This has resulted in some unusual characteristics — according to Fiyta, the brand developed a special lubricant for the movement that will allow the watch to function in temperature ranges between 80 degrees Celsius and -80 degrees Celsius.
The watch was also stress-tested for magnetic fields (around 600 gauss), shock resistance, thermal vacuums, acceleration, and anti-vibration. Notably, the water resistance rating is only 50m, but that’s not a big concern in space. Other practical attributes are antireflective sapphire crystal and a screw-down crown that atypically screws in counterclockwise, apparently to prevent accidental loosening.
There are also design features of the Fiyta Spacemaster tailored to taikonauts’ missions that won’t be found on many other watches. First, the rotating titanium bezel has special markers to track a time interval of eight hours, which is the length of life support in the Feitian EVA spacesuit. The chronograph minute counter at 12 o’clock is divided into 5-minute segments with 30 minutes marked in blue and 45 minutes marked in green — these are for timing tasks the taikonauts must regularly complete within those specific time frames. Finally, an AM/PM indicator helps keep the crew oriented to earth time.
Information regarding the manually-wound chronograph movement inside is unsurprisingly vague — this remains an issue across much of the Chinese watch industry as it continues to develop (rapidly) in terms of design and innovation, but also consistent and reliable communication. The brand claims the movement was jointly developed by Fiyta and the Shanghai Watch Factory, but details are “confidential” and some have speculated that it is based on an ETA/Valjoux 7754. While many Fiyta watches use Japanese Miyota movements, we do know that the Fitya Spacemaster’s movement has a power reserve of 45 hours. Automatic winding is nice for when on earth, but would be pretty useless in space without gravity to help spin the rotor. For the commercial edition, the solid case back features an embossed spacewalk motif and wordage.
“Spacemaster” is the watch’s official name, but it has also been referred to as the “Fiyta Extravehicular Space Watch” in English (which sounds really cool) and the Chinese name’s translation is something like “Fiyta Space Collection Shenzhou 7 Commemorative Watch.” It might not be China’s answer to the iconic Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch or as well-known as some other watches that have been to space, but it has a fascinating background and is visually distinctive. The Fiyta Spacemaster is no longer made but had an original price in USD of around $2,000 — hopefully, given its fascinating backstory and utilitarian design, it’s a watch that will be brought back into production sometime in the future.