Dmytro Berdyansky, President of the Crystal Group and an international independent watchmaking expert, tells about the iconic Omega Speedmaster watch and the history of its use in space exploration.
Speedmaster: Born to Be a Racer
No other watch can match the cosmic “experience” of the Omega Speedmaster, the only chronograph to walk on the moon. Initially, it, of course, was not intended for the conquest of space and the study of celestial bodies. Surely no one at Omega could even have foreseen that the Speedmaster would end up in Earth orbit. And that it will accompany man on his greatest adventure.
The Speedmaster was the first chronograph of its kind to feature a tachymeter scale on the outer bezel. Its release was a response to the growing demand for durable and accurate waterproof watches. A watch that is reliable, readable and easy to use. I would like to draw attention to some of the most iconic examples. It is a watch that has become milestones in the evolution of this most interesting model and its role in the space race.
The Speedmaster is one of a trio of Master watches launched by Omega in 1957. It included: waterproof Seamaster 300 CK 2913 for divers; Railmaster CK 2914 anti-magnetic for engineers; and the Speedmaster CK 2915 with stopwatch function for racing drivers. The Flightmaster and Chronomaster were considered options for the chronograph, but the watch ended up being called the Speedmaster.
The Matter of Milliseconds
A 1958 promotional poster for the model’s release shows two men in a sports convertible. The passenger raises his left wrist to show the driver the elapsed time and speed. The caption speaks for itself: “For Men Who Reckon Time in Seconds: Omega Speedmaster.” The ranks of these people included “scientists, engineers, television and film directors, athletes and their coaches.” And also everyone who was moving and needed a countdown with an accuracy of 1/5 second. Omega was by then the official Olympic timekeeper. According to the slogan, the watch “split time into fractions of a second when records and medals were at stake.”
A feature of the Speedmaster was the location of the tachymeter scale. Instead of being displayed on the dial, it was moved outside and engraved on the steel bezel. The Speedmaster, defined as a “high-precision wrist computer with a tachymeter scale,” was capable of measuring anything from projectile speed to worker productivity. With a black dial and crisp white contrast indexes and hands, the chronograph was reminiscent of the dashboard of an Italian racing car of the time.
The First Watch as a Space Traveller
Around the same time, the US Congress passed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a civilian agency responsible for coordinating US activities in space. The creation of NASA in 1958 was a direct response to the launch by the Soviet Union in 1957 of the first artificial Earth satellite and marked the official start of the US-Soviet space race.
The first Speedmaster (CK 2998) used in space was worn by astronaut Walter Schirra. This happened during the flight of the Sigma 7 spacecraft as part of the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1962. Early in NASA’s development, watches were not part of the official astronaut kit. Walter Schirra’s Speedmaster was his personal watch. As technology has advanced, so have the demands of astronauts. Some felt that, in addition to electronic ones, they should also have mechanical timing devices with them.
Speedmaster, NASA Watch Test Winner
Director of Flight Crew Operations Dick Slayton made a request for reliable and accurate chronographs for crews on the Gemini and Apollo missions. In 1964, an offer to participate in the competition was sent to ten watch companies, but only four responded to it. Of these four (Longines, Omega, Rolex and Hamilton), engineer James Ragan chose three. Hamilton was dropped because they provided a pocket chronograph instead of a wrist watch. The subsequent qualification tests have been designed to test watches under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Sudden temperature changes, 100% oxygen environment, loads of 40 g, etc. Only one of the contestants survived the test, and in 1965 the Speedmaster (reference ST 105.003) was declared “airworthy for all NASA manned space missions.”
The Speedmaster made its first “official” spaceflight as a certified astronaut watch aboard the Gemini III mission, on the wrists of Virgil (Gus) Grissom and John Young. There is a photo of them on the wrist of Edward White during the first historic spacewalk during the Gemini IV mission in 1965. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first astronaut to walk on the moon. He wasn’t wearing a watch, but Buzz Aldrin was wearing one, strapping his Speedmasters over a bulky suit. After this epic walk on the moon, the Speedmaster became known as the Moonwatch.
Omega Speedmaster – a Hero with a Mechanical Heart
This watch proved vital during the Apollo 13 launch in 1970 (“Houston, we have a problem”). The explosion of a reserve oxygen and hydrogen cylinder in the service module provoked a system failure. Commander James Lovell relied on his Speedmaster to time the reentry rockets. This allowed his crew to safely return to Earth.
The Speedmaster was present at another decisive event in the history of space exploration: the docking of the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft for a joint flight of astronauts of the USSR and the USA in 1975. During the symbolic handshake in space, symbolizing the beginning of the end of the space race, both crews wore the Speedmaster. The popularity of lunar landings began to wane. The last person to walk on the moon was Eugene Cernan in 1972. However, NASA began its Space Shuttle program in 1978 and the Speedmasters were re-certified to fly.
This watch has six landings on the moon under its belt. It has accompanied every US manned space flight since 1965 and is currently used on the International Space Station. The Speedmaster has been a witness and ally of man in his greatest achievements in the field of space exploration.
Early Speedmaster Calibers
Even before the Speedmaster was born, its “heart” was beating at the Lemania factory in Villeret, Switzerland. Known for its outstanding watch movements, such as chronographs, stopwatches and repeaters, Lemania has supplied chronograph calibers to prestigious brands. In 1941, Lemania produced the 27 CHRO C12, the ancestor of the 321 Omega. It was, and remains, one of the finest and most beautiful hand-wound chronograph movements ever made. It was designed by Albert Piguet, CTO of Lemania. From the 1940s until recently, the Lemania caliber 2310 was used by Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet. In 1932, Lemania joined the SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère) watch consortium along with Omega and Tissot.
Lemania produced complex movements for Omega, which supplied chronographs for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and eventually for the Speedmaster. The robust components of the caliber 321 were produced with the utmost precision and could be replaced without modification, something not everyone could boast of at that time. It was the Speedmaster CK 2915 with 321 caliber that was the watch that went into space, and therefore is still the most coveted of all the “lunar” Speedmaster models for collectors.
Speedmaster Movement Optimization
After they were seen on the wrists of NASA astronauts, the demand for these watches skyrocketed, and to meet this demand, the brand began to develop a movement that was more reliable and practical to manufacture. In 1968, a modification of the 321 caliber, the 861, was introduced. With a flat balance and a higher frequency of 21,600 vibrations per hour, the model used a stronger cam to switch the chronograph instead of a column wheel. The steel brake lever on the chronograph center wheel was later also replaced with a Delrin polymer lever for better cushioning.
Researching the history of these watches is not an easy task. The evolution of the Speedmaster has not always been linear. Sometimes there were temporary “overlays” between different references, and keeping their sequence in mind can be difficult even for experienced collectors. But be that as it may, the Speedmaster is one of the few watch models that have become iconic and have a whole army of fans around the world.
The most coveted of all the Speedmaster models, the CK 2915 was the first member of this famous family. The same watch, released in 1957 as one of the Master trio. It was the first chronograph to feature a tachymeter scale engraved on the steel outer bezel. Black dial with three recessed mini-dials, broad arrow shaped hour hand. Indexes and hands were covered with radium luminescent paint.
Aesthetic Evolution of the Model
As I mentioned, Omega equipped the Speedmaster with a Lemania-made caliber 321. It was a hand-wound column-wheel chronograph with side clutch, anti-shock mechanism and anti-magnetic coating. The model was produced for three years from 1957 to 1959 in three references. Produced in 1959, it is considered a transitional model, with wide arrows replaced by alpha hands. The bezel has been changed to black for greater readability of the tachymeter scale. The CK 2915 Speedmaster is considered to be a real watch grail.
The CK 2998 marked the next step in the evolution of the Speedmaster and replaced the CK 2915 in 1959. It was that first “unofficial” Speedmaster in space – Walter Schirra’s personal watch, which he used during the Sigma 7 flight in 1962. The CK 2998-1 has a black aluminum bezel and alpha hands.
Still powered by the first generation caliber 321, the model spawned 6 additional references with minor changes. Among them: an optional round “lollipop” counterweight on the chronograph hand or an optional heart rate monitor instead of a tachymeter, as well as a change in the scale from 1000 to 500 (2998-3). Another improvement was the addition of O-rings around the pushers to improve their water resistance.
Speedmaster References, Codes, and Calibers
It is worth noting that in 1962 the original coding system was replaced by the more sophisticated Mapics system. The pre-1962 code applied to two models, the CK 2915 and CK 2998. CK is an abbreviation for Staybrite stainless steel. The first Speedmaster with a Mapics reference was the ST 105.002, a watch similar to the CK 2998, which was produced for only two years between 1962 and 1964. One of the hallmarks of the 1964 ref. ST 105.002 is the appearance of baton-format hands to indicate hours and minutes.
ST 105.003 is the same mechanism that passed 11 grueling NASA qualification tests in 1965. The first watch to “breathe the fresh air” in outer space on Ed White’s wrist during the Gemini IV mission. It is also the latest Speedmaster with straight lugs. The name ST 105.003 was changed to ST 145.003 in 1967 due to new changes in the coding system. Another innovation was the addition of the letter “T” on either side of the inscription “Swiss Made” on the dial. She pointed to the presence of radioactive tritium used for luminescence.
According to the Omega Museum in Bienne, Switzerland, ST 105.012 was the machine that landed on the Moon in 1969. Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore the ST 105.012. While NASA tested reference ST 105.003, ST 105.012 was certified for use in space without any further testing. The structure of the ST 105.012 case has been changed to make it more durable. The pushers and the crown were provided with protective buttresses, making the design of the case asymmetrical. The lugs were beveled and twisted, which eventually became the hallmark of the Speedmaster.
Last Watch on the Moon
The ST 105.012 was one of the last Speedmasters to feature a handsome caliber 321 column-wheel chronograph and the first to feature the Professional inscription on the dial. The most recent model with caliber 321 was the ST 145.012. This watch was slightly different from the ST 105.012: the pusher heads were higher and screwed into the case. It was used by several astronauts during various Apollo missions.
In 1968, caliber 321 was phased out and replaced by caliber 861. It was also produced by Lemania and designed by Albert Piguet. The 861 featured a cam-operated chronograph and marked the second major evolution of the Speedmaster. Model ST 145.022 underwent some stylistic changes. The chronograph hand received a flat counterweight to replace the “lollipop”, and the accented letter È disappeared from the word “TACHYMETRE” in watches produced since 1970.
Model ST 145.022 had many designations. In the 1970s, Mapics introduced a seven-digit reference, ST 145.0022. In 1988, a new coding system was introduced, known as the Product Identification Code or PIC.
Omega Speedmaster Heritage
Demand for these watches does not dry out. There have been many variations on the theme of the Moonwatch watch, and they will continue to appear in the future. Models with transparent case backs, anniversary models, limited editions, “moon” models. Watches dedicated to individual astronauts and entire missions, and models in patented Moonshine gold. Even the recently released magnificent Snoopy model in honor of the presentation of the Omega NASA Snoopy Award in 1970 became a real hit and a sought-after collector’s rarity.
Given the new wave of interest in the subject of space exploration and Omega’s sound approach to its space heritage and the milestones of its cooperation with NASA, the popularity of “moonwatches” will only grow. As well as their collection value, and, accordingly, investment attractiveness. Our company Crystal Group is the exclusive representative of the Omega brand in Ukraine. Crystal watch shops are the official points of sale of the brand’s watches, including the iconic Speedmaster chronograph.