Omega Speedmaster

Omega has created timepieces since 1912. However the Omega Speedmaster history begins tacitly in 1943 when Omega launched the movement “27 CHRO C12″ or “321” as the official nickname. The CHRO simply represented Chronograph, 27 stood for the movements diameter in millimeters and C12 for the 12-hour totalizer. The movement was designed by Albert Piguet of the now extraordinary Piguet line of watches.

This model was available to the public from 1946 with a shock protection system and antimagnetic balance spring. In January 1959 Lemania instituted the beginning of the Speedmaster series. In 1958, Omega began preselling what was to be THE most well known chronograph. In 1960 the bezel was replaced with a black one, the hands were changed from arrow shaped to “dauphine” and the case diameter grew by one mm. In 1965 they began the work of creating a new movement and in August 1965 began the assembly of the first “861- calibre” movements. The new movement meant increased frequency from 18,000 (2,5Hz) to 21,600 (3Hz) vibrations per hour. By now the Speedmaster was well into the space program and in April 1966 the addition “Professional” was made to the dial of the Speedmaster to commemorate it’s debut in space.

How did this watch become known as the moon watch? Well, NASA indiscreetly sent two employees out to purchase five reputable chronographs in the Houston, TX area to be tested for possible use in space in 1964 (this included Corrigan’s, which at the time was the city’s best-known watch and jewelry retailer). The Mercury project was approaching completion and the coming Gemini projrct would have depend on a watch that could withstand the extreme conditions in space, including space walking. After the first round of tests 2 of the 5 brands were disqualified. By the 2nd round there was only one watch left.

On 09/29/1964 NASA ordered 12 Speedmasters from the main Omega supplier for their region. They paid full retail price, $82.50 for the watches and wanted them delivered by 10/21/1964. Meanwhile NASA arranged for a series of test to finally determine what watch to use in space. The watches had to cope with:

  • Extremely high temperatures:
    48 hours at 71º C followed by 30 minutes at 93º C.
    This under a pressure of 0,35atm and relative humidity not over 15%.
  • Sub Freezing temperatures:
    4 hours at -18º C.
  • Temperature-pressure:
    0,000001atm and temperature raised to 71º C.
    Temperature then dropped to -18º C in 45 minutes and again raised to 71º C in 45 minutes.
    This extreme test cycle was repeated fifteen times.
  • Relative humidity:
    240 hours in relative humidity of at least 95% and at temperatures varying between 20º C and 71º C.
    The steam had a pH value from 6.5-7.5.
  • Oxygen atmosphere:
    Exposure to 100% oxygen atmosphere at a pressure of 0,35atm and a temperature of 71º C for 48 hours.
  • Shock:
    Six 11 millisecond shocks of 40g each in six different directions.
  • Acceleration:
    Linear acceleration from 1g to 7,25g within 333 seconds.
  • Decompression:
    90 minutes in a vacuum of 0,000001atm and a temperature of 71º C
    and 30 minutes in the same vacuum but at a temperature of 93ºC.
  • High pressure:
    Exposure to 1,6atm for one hour.
  • Vibration:
    Three cycles of 30 minutes (lateral, horizontal and vertical), the frequency varying from 5 to 2000cps and back to 5cps in 15 minutes.
    Average acceleration per impulse 8,8g.
  • Acoustic noise:
    130db over a frequency range from 40 to 10000Hz for 30 minutes.

The tests were completed on 03/01/1965. Three chronographs from different manufacturers were still running, but only the durable Speedmaster series from Omega had passed without any of the serious troubles that had occurred with the two others (twisted hands, warped crystals, etc.). NASA stated: “Operational and environmental tests ot the three selected chronographs have been completed, and, as a result of the test, Omega chronographs have been calibrated and issued to three members of the GT-3 crews.” The “GT-3″ (Gemini-Titan III) took of 04.52 March 23, 1964 with the astronauts John Young and Virgil Grissom on board. On the next Gemini flight (IV) Edward White left the capsule and became the first American to walk in space. Upon his wrist was the Speedmaster.

Ironically, Omega only found out about the Speedmaster’s journey into space after noticing a photograph of Ed White taken during America’s first spacewalk as part of the Gemini 4 mission in June of 1965.

Of special note, it is understood that Buzz Aldrin’s watch was lost in transit in or about 1971 whilst en route to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum whilst Buzz was attempting to loan the item for display. Its current location cannot be detected.Even in the 21st century, the Speedmaster model is proudly worn by present day astronauts on NASA missions in space.

This is how the Omega Speedmaster earned a place in American history & now you know the rest of the story.

Flown Omega Speedmaster Professional Chronographs currently on public display
Mission Crewman Last Known Location
044 Apollo 8 Bill Anders U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis
060 Apollo 8 Jim Lovell Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
027 Apollo 10 Tom Stafford National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
046 Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
073 Apollo 11 Mike Collins National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
057 Apollo 12 Dick Gordon The Omega Museum, Bienne, Switzerland
068 Apollo 13 Fred Haise Penn-Harris-Madison Planetarium, Mishawaka, Indiana
075 Apollo 14 Alan Shepard Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson
077 Apollo 14 Ed Mitchell US Astronaut Hall of Fame, Titusville
045 Apollo 15 Al Worden on loan from Worden to the Smithsonian
047 Apollo 15 Jim Irwin Penn-Harris-Madison Planetarium, Mishawaka, Indiana
061 Apollo 17 Ron Evans Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson

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Susan N. Freeman