In 1964 during the peak of the Space Race, Nasa began scouring the market for a chronograph to use on its manned space missions.
The man assigned to this task was James Ragan, who worked in Nasa’s aerospace engineering division.
Four brands were in the fray: Longines, Omega, Rolex, and Hamilton. Chronograph watches from these four brands were subjected to the same series of tests that were used for every piece of hardware that was intended for space.
Of the four, Ragan ruled one out right in the beginning because he didn’t think the wristwatch was sturdy enough. In the end, three watches from three different brands were subject to a battery of 10 tests.
The watches were tested in 10 different environments and to qualify, a watch had to clear all 10 challenges. Even failing one of the 10 would rule them out of contention.
Two of the watches fell at the first hurdle, which was a thermo-vacuum test. Only one watch survived the extreme temperatures, vibrations, hard shocks, and unforgiving vacuums of the testing process — the Omega Speedmaster.
This watch was declared "operational for space exploration and flight certified" by Nasa.
“Most of the people who worked for Nasa in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years were totally consumed with the safety of the astronauts and to providing the astronauts with the best possible vehicle and equipment and able to achieve our national goal of putting a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth within the decade of the 1960s. It was basically a 24/7/365 job,” Ragan said in an interview on the Omega website.
Although it was “flight-qualified by Nasa” only in 1964, the space agency’s association with Omega began unwittingly in 1962. Astronaut Walter Schirra wore his personal Omega Speedmaster (Ref. CK2998) on the six-orbit, nine-hour Mercury-Atlas 8 mission on October 3, 1962.
A year after it was flight-qualified by Nasa, Ed White became the first American in space to walk in space (or perform extra-vehicular activity, EVA) in June 1965 during the Gemini IV mission.
He was wearing an Omega Speedmaster (ref. 105.003) on his wrist.
These "pre-Moon" chronographs worn by astronauts in the 1960s didn’t have the word ‘Professional’ mentioned on the dial (they were introduced on Speedmaster models produced post-Nasa approval) and are really hard to track down today and consequently go at quite a premium on the vintage market.
Speedmasters for Apollo 11
All crew members of Apollo 11 mission were issued with Speedmasters (Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were issued Ref. ST105.012 and Michael Collins was given a Ref. 145.012.).
These models were the first Speedmasters with the asymmetrical “lyre” lugs and featured a bigger 42 mm wide case as opposed to sub-40 mm size of the previous references.
The watch was fitted with a Hesalite (acrylic) crystal and was powered by Caliber 321, a manual-winding chronograph based on the legendary Lemania 2310 movement.
When the Apollo 11 crew finally landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin had the watch on him during his lunar walkabout but Armstrong’s Speedmaster was left in the Lunar Module since the onboard clock was malfunctioning.
However, the legend of the Moonwatch was upon us and it entrenched the Speedmaster’s place in the pantheon of horological legends.
Omega, understandably, has milked its association with the Moon Landing and has issued a series of commemorative editions over the years.
They also continue to produce the Moonwatch, which is true to the original reference bar a few minor changes and an upgraded chronograph movement.
As far as backstories go in the world of horology, the Speedmaster’s legacy is unparalleled.