OMEGA – Time to put man on the moon

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Hopkins And Jones may well be known within the London pawnbroking industry as a watch specialist, but it is the knowledge that underpins their specialism that sets them apart from other London pawnbrokers. In addition to the level of information that they hold in order to be able to give accurate evaluations, Hopkins And Jones have a great understanding of the stories behind the great brands. This is why they are reputed for both luxury watch pawnbroking and retails. Working with brands that Patek Philippe, Rolex, Bremont and Breitling, Hopkins And Jones can point us directly to great moments in history and explain what was happening in terms of time-keeping.

Omega watches have been at the forefront of modern chronometry, with the brand performing consistently well at annual chronometry trials which were set in order to understand if time can be measured precisely and how best to make sure that timepieces can do this. Alongside Patek Philippe as the only other major luxury watch brand taking part in the trials, Omega was able to consolidate their reputation for precision and innovation.

Luxury Swiss watchmaker based in Bienne, Switzerland, Omega has played a huge part in space exploration and is even known as the ‘first watch on the moon’.

Omega and NASA

The Omega Speedmaster was first introduced in 1957, but the manual winding Speedmaster Professional or ‘Moonwatch’ is the best-known and longest-produced. Worn during both the first American spacewalk of NASA’s Gemini 4 mission and during the first moonlanding of the Apollo 11 mission, the Speedmaster Professional remains qualified for space travel by NASA.  

Not originally designed for space exploration, The Speedmaster was launched in 1957 as a sport and racing chronograph and reinforced Omega’s position as the official timekeeper for the Olympic Games.

The first Speedmaster model was powered by the Omega Calibre 321 movement with the ‘Speedmaster’ name taken from the model’s novel tachymeter scale bezel (in brushed stainless steel) and by the convention set by previous Omega brands Seamaster and Railmaster. The Speedmaster model established the series’ hallmark 12-hour, triple-register chronograph layout, domed Plexiglas crystal (named Hésalite), and simple, high-contrast index markers and, unlike most subsequent Speedmaster models, it used Omega’s broad arrow hand set. 

While all early Speedmasters used the Calibre 321 movement, it was replaced in 1968/1969 with the Calibre 861 movement, used in the ‘Moonwatch’. The watches used in Apollo 11’s mission were the 1967 ‘pre-Moon’ 321 versions.

Omega in space

Three years before the Speedmaster’s official qualification for space flight, astronaut Wally Schirra took his personal CK 2998 aboard Mercury-Atlas 8 (Sigma 7) on October 3, 1962. Following what must have been a successful – in unintentional – pilot, legends tells of a furtive visit to a jeweller in Houston, Texas to evaluate their use for the Gemini and Apollo Programs. This stands corrected by a former NASA engineer responsible, James Ragan, for Apollo flight hardware testing, who claims that bids were officially requested from several brands. Brands under official consideration included Breitling, Longines-Wittnauer, Rolex, and Omega. Tested under extreme conditions of high temperatures of 160 °F (71 °C) and 200 °F (93 °C), freezing conditions of 0 °F (−18 °C), near-vacuum conditions, humidity, shock, varying degrees of pressure, vibrations and noise. Evaluations concluded in March 1965 with the selection of the Speedmaster.

Gemini program

Gemini 3 on March 23, 1965 saw Gus Grissom and John Young sport the first officially qualified Speedmasters, while Ed White made the first American spacewalk during Gemini 4 with a Speedmaster strapped to the outside of the left-side sleeve of his G4C space suit. To make sure that it fitted around the space suit, the watch was attached by a long nylon strap secured with Velcro, wound round several times to shorten its length.

Images were widely used in Omega marketing between 1965 and 1967, establishing a strong link the Speedmaster and space exploration. Speedmasters were issued to all subsequent Gemini crews until the end of the program in 1966.

Apollo program

By 1966, Speedmaster being used across the early manned Apollo program, reaching the Moon with Apollo 11. These and prior models are known as ‘pre-Moon’ Speedmasters, as their manufacture predates the Moon landings and they are without the inscription later models carry: “The First Watch Worn on the Moon”.

While Apollo 11 commander, Neil Armstrong, was first to set foot on the Moon, he left his Speedmaster inside the Lunar Module as a backup, because the Lunar Module’s electronic timer had malfunctioned.  Buzz Aldrin wore his Speedmaster, making it the first watch to be worn on the Moon. He said of his decision:

It was optional to wear while we were walking on the surface of the Moon … few things are less necessary when walking around on the Moon than knowing what time it is in Houston, Texas. Nonetheless, being a watch guy, I decided to strap the Speedmaster onto my right wrist around the outside of my bulky spacesuit.

Sadly, Aldrin’s Speedmaster was lost during shipping when he sent it to the Smithsonian Institution.

Apollo 17 carried an additional Speedmaster to lunar orbit as part of the Heat Flow and Convection Experiment, conducted by Command Module pilot Ronald Evans. This Speedmaster watch was sold for $23,000 at a Heritage Auction in 2009.

Apollo 13

In 1970, after Apollo 13 was almost devasted by the rupture of a Service Module oxygen tank, Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster was used to accurately time the critical 14-second burn using the Lunar Module’s Descent Propulsion System, which secured the crew’s safe return. In recognition of this, Omega was awarded the Snoopy Award by the Apollo 13 astronauts, “for dedication, professionalism, and outstanding contributions in support of the first United States Manned Lunar Landing Project.”

Speedmaster has remained flight-qualified for NASA space missions after re-evaluation by NASA in 1972 and remained in use for the Space Shuttle program in 1978.

A Moonwatch of your own?

Omega produces a large number of commemorative and limited editions, based on the basic ‘Moon Watch design, featuring different patches for the space missions it was issued for.

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On April 12, 2018

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