Friday, October 26, 2012

The Wristwatch Space Race

Mercury 7
While USA and Russia were racing to get the first man in space, there was another race in place.

The Wristwatch Space Race.

Buzz Aldrin in the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon
Think for a moment what watch brand comes to  mind when envisioning the first watch in space.
Probably Omega.  Omega has the same effect when one thinks of the Olympics. 

You may draw a mental reference to the highly publicized image of an Omega Speedmaster around the wrist of Buzz Aldrin sitting in his lunar module during NASA's Apollo 11 mission. ( Link to Space Exploration on Omega's Website)

Before you think I am disregarding Omega's influence in space let me begin by saying that without a doubt the Omega Speedmaster was the professional moon watch chosen by NASA for its ability to withstand the adverse conditions in space.  It was the only watch NASA approved for EVA.

For more info click here on an excellent article,
 " The Moon Watch: A History of the Omega Speedmaster Professional"  by Alan A. Nelson (M.D.) and published in the February 1993 NAWCC Bulletin.

Omega was the first watch worn on the moon, but there is a watch movement still on the moon.  It is no longer working of course, but it was meant to continue humming for a year after the Apollo 11 Mission.  I use the term "humming" not "ticking", because the watch movement placed on the Sea of Tranquility was a Bulova Accutron within a NASA lunar instrument. The Bulova Accutron did not behave as well on the instrument panel of the lunar module and so Neil Armsrtong left his Omega Seamaster on board as a backup.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon on, July 21st, 1969 and the   Omega Speedmaster only became the official NASA watch  as of March 1st, 1965 “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions”, but their was quite a bit of space travel beforehand, particularly the Mercury Missions and the Soviet Vostok Programme. .

Bulova Accutron Movement in Space

I suppose you can say the Bulova Accutrons were the first clocks in space.  An Accutron was installed onto the instrument panel of the Vanguard I. It was the very first Electronic Watch, and thus was quite prevalent on a Satellite. I found no mention of any clocks on the Sputniks or Explorers aside from beep intervals. (I would love any additional information on this.)

Mercury Seven Scott Carpenter Wearing an Accutron
In the late 1950's, before either USA or Russia sent a man to space, the very new NASA asked Bulova to incorporate Accutron technology into their space equipment. NASA was established on July 29th, 1958 with President  Eisenhower the National Aeronautics and Space Act in response to the Sputnik crisis.
 At that time the CEO of Bulova was Omar Bradley, a five star highly decorated retired general who served in both World War II and the Korean War.  Omar Bradley was a former classmate of President Eisenhower.
 For this new accelerated era in space exploration efforts, new advanced technology was deemed necessary. Since Accutron had come up with the most precise way of timekeeping to date, Accutron was chosen as the timekeepers on the instrument panel of space crafts.

Accutron was the world's first electronic watch, later obviated by the Quartz Watch.  1977 was the final year for Accutron 214's. Accutron's are highly collectable.

The watch boasted an accuracy of two seconds a day or one minute a month.  The Accutron 214 did not tick, but hum.  Its basic principal was that of a tuning fork, which was electrically excited and vibrated at 360 Hz. This type of accuracy provided by the Accutron was critical in space flight.  The Accutron Clocks were installed as Space Craft  Panel clocks.

Click here for more info on Accutron Watches

Accutron Movement 214
Benton Harbor News Palladium - August 12 1969
Max Hetzel:  Max Hetzel, an engineer born in Basel Switzerland, and employed by Bulova as a development engineer between the years of 1950-1959 ,developed the Accutron. 20 patents later, in 1959, he became chief of R & D. Although Max Hetzel was born in Switzerland, he was not into watchmaking per se, but rather into electronics.  He started young building radios at age 12. He felt mechanical watches were outdated and new more technologically advanced timekeepers were more prevalent for the electronic era.

His ideas did not sit very well with the Swiss - a country were mechanical watch making is a huge industry.
He moved to the USA and become an Ameican Citizen. \His success at Bulova resulted in NASA asking Bulova to incorporate all its new Accutron technology in its NASA space equipment and in 1967 his Accutrons were the only clocks on board Air Force One.

In 1969, Max Hetzel became the CEO of OMEGA's subsidiary Elresor SA.  He wanted  to develop a better movement than his own previous Accutron patent. The result of his efforts was the Swissonic, which  ,as a result of patent conflicts with Accutron, was never marketed.  Funny thin was  Max Hetzel ,the creator of Accutron, was actually working for Omega on its Megasonic Program when his Accutron movement  was placed on the moon. 

Yuri Gagarin - Vostok 1 - Sturmanskie Wrist Watch

The precision of Accutron's and the resilience of Omega were excellent aspects of space worthiness, but both brands were not the first in space.

The first watch in space was neither an Omega or Accutron, but rather a Russian made Sturmanskie Timepiece.  On the 12th of April 1961,on board the Vostok 1,  Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to enter space and the first man to orbit the earth.  Strapped around his wrist was a Russian Made Sturmanskie Timepiece.

 The Sturmanskie's 17 jewel movement was housed within a shock absorbent chrome plated two piece case measuring 33mm in diameter and 12mm in height.  This particular watch had a stainless steel screw in case back instead of a stainless steel snap on case back as with the earlier Sturmanskie models. Yuri Gagarin's model was highly finished with Geneva striping.   In addition the implementation of gaskets increased water resistance. The watch functioned perfectly in conditions of zero gravity.
 The watch was based on a French design, the Lip R26.  To manufacture the Sturmanskie, the 1st Moscow Watch Factory originally purchased the machinery from the French.  Due to the watches precision, resilience and reliability in adverse conditions, it was a formality to provide all new graduates from the Orenberg Flight School with a Sturmanskie.

Apollo 14
Alan Shepard - 1st Mercury Mission MR-3 Freedom 7 - No Wristwatch on Record

  On 5th of May 1961, the first Mercury Mission, the USA sent Alan Shepard into space as a pilot of the Freedom 7. He became the first American in Space.  Alan Shepard chose not to wear a watch on that mission. He did wear an Omega Speedmaster ,as did Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, almost ten years later  on his Apollo 14 Mission to the moon on February 5, 1972. In the Apollo 14 mission, the Omega Speedmasters were worn on the outside of the spacesuit on a specialized velcro NASA black nylon strap as per the specifications of NASA. It has been speculated that Ed Mitchel - who spent 9 hours and 17 minutes working on the surface of the moon, was wearing a  Rolex Pepsi GMT Master on his right wrist and his Omega Speedmaster on his left.  So it could be that a Rolex GMT Master accompanied the Omega Speedmaster on the longest moon walk.

Gus Grissom - MR-4 Liberty Bell 7- No Wristwatch on Record:

On July 21st, 1961 Virgil "Gus" Grissom piloted the MR-4 spacecraft Liberty Bell 7 for a suborbital flight lasting 15 minutes and 37 seconds becoming  the Second American in Space. Gus Grissom returned to earth with a splash and due to the premature opening of the Liberty Bell 7's hatch, the spacecraft took on water and was sinking fast.  Gus Grissom managed to exit the space craft.  After failed efforts by the rescue helicopter to lift The Liberty Bell 7 it sunk  to a depth of 4.6 km. It was later recovered on July 20th,  1999. Besides for the pressure valve strapped to his wrist, he wore no watch on his wrist.  The Mercury Spacesuits had mirrors on the inside of both wrists and on the chest, for instrument panel read out. Gus liked watches though and owned a 24-hour Le-Coultre stainless steel military anti magnetic, shockproof, water resistant wristwatch baring a black 24 hour face, which he wore on special occasions down here on earth.
On March 23rd, 1965 Gus Grissom became the first astronaut to fly into space twice as the Command Pilot of Gemini 3, which he called Molly Brown. (From the Musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown).  On this mission he took with him two engraved wristwatches for his sons Scott and Mark. (I could not find any info on the brand of these two watches).  Gus Grissom tragically  lost his life on January 27, 1967 during an Apollo 1 simulation ahead of the scheduled February 21st launch date.
Tag Heuer Carrera SpaceX 1887 Chronograph circa 2012

John Glenn MA-6  Friendship 7 -  Tag Heuer StopWatch on Elastic Band:

Tag Heuer also has its moments of space fame and joined in the race pretty early on. On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and the third American up in space on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Around his wrist was a Tag Heuer Stop Watch. With his statement, "The Clock is Running", he orbited the earth three times.  The flight took 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.  The Tag Heuer was fashioned with elastic bands to fit over the space suit.   NASA chose Tag Heuer as the watch of chose able to withstand the intense G-forces of lift off.
To celebrate Tag Heuer's 50th anniversary  the first watch company in space, Tag Heuer unveiled the 43mm Tag Heuer Carrera SpaceX 1887 Chronograph, which will is available for $5,800 USD in a limited edition of 2012 pieces. (above image)

Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute - Left Wrist

Scott Carpenter MA-7 Aurora 7 - Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaut
On May 24th, 1962 Breitling joined the Wristwatch Space Race becoming the first wristwatch chronograph to enter space.   Scott carpenter (who was photographed in a French magazine wearing an Accutron), the second American to orbit the earth and the 4th person in space,  opted for a Breitling while orbiting the earth in his Aurora 7 capsule no less than three times. In 1961 Scott Carpenter actually approached Breitling to make him a watch with a 24 hour dial - since a 12 hour dial will be useless in space where there is no night and day. A Breitling 24-hour Navitimer Cosmonaute (astronaut in French) was delivered three days before he was scheduled to leave on his Mercury-Atlas 7 mission. To celebrate 50 years of the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission, earlier this year  Breitling unveiled a manual winding  in-house  Navitimer Cosmonaute limited to 1962 pieces.  In recognition of Scott Carpenter's wristwatch - which incidentally has never been located since the famed mission - this certified chronometer chronograph sports a 24 hour display, Fahrenheit / Celsius degree conversion scale, bi-directional rotating bezel,  handy circular slide rule and a 70 hour power reserve. Engraved on the case back is the Insignia of the Aurora 7.

Towards the end of 1962, a telling sign for the Wristwatch Space Race was Bulova's highly publicized modified wristwatch strap for the X-15 pilots. All the newspaper clips from that time specifically stated these straps were for Bulova's electronic wristwatches. 
Since NASA only made the Omega Speedmaster  “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on the 1st of March 1965, in 1962 the wristwatch space race was still on.

Wally Schirra sporting an Omega Speedmaster

Wally Schirra - MA-8 Sigma 7 - Omega Speedmaster: 

On  October 3, 1962 Wally Schirra ,one of the original Mercury Seven forged the way for Omega up in Space.  Wally Schirra, the fifth American in Space wore an Omega Speedmaster piloting the Mercury-Atlas 8 on a 6 orbit mission lasting 9 hours, 13 seconds and 11 seconds. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historical event Omega this month unveiled at BaselWorld 2012 a “First Omega in Space” Speedmaster 1962. This Omega Speedmaster is powered by a Caliber 1861, which is based on a manual winding  Lemania 1871 Chronograph movement. (Automatics do not work where there is no gravity).  Engraved on the case back is Omega's original seahorse logo and the words, “THE FIRST OMEGA IN SPACE” and “OCTOBER 3, 1962”. This watch is not a limited edition and will appear in stores around October 2012. Wally Schirra passed away on May 3rd, 2007.

 "So I used my wrist watch for time," Gordon Cooper Faith 7

Accutron Astronaut seen on Gordon Cooper's Wrist Prior to Faith  7
Gordon Cooper - MA-9 Faith 7 -  Omega Chronograph & Bulova Accutron Astronaut: 

The final Mercury Mission on May 15th, 1963,  sent Gordon Cooper into space for 34 hours,19 minutes and 49 seconds  orbiting the earth 22 times.  He piloted the Mercury-Atlas 9 or Faith 7 and slept some.  This particular mission emphasized the need for instruments not reliant on the instrument panel.  The X-1 pilots like Chuck Yaeger of Rolex wristwatch fame and the first pilot to break the speed of sound, joked that the Mercury Astronauts had no need to "pilot" the spacecraft, as the crafts were designed for fully automatic control.  He described the Mercury 7 as "Spam in a Can".  He was proven quite wrong ,though,when due to technical problems Gordon Coopers Space capsule lost power. The situation became dicey when CO2 levels and temperature levels rose. Gordon Cooper mastered the controls and using his celestial knowledge was able to calculate the correct pitch for re-entry into the earths atmosphere. Making even a slight miscalculation would have been grave.  A sharp angle into the atmosphere would result in destructive g-forces, a too shallow trajectory would cause the tiny capsule to bounce off the atmosphere and head back into space.  Amazingly Cooper used the capsule window to draw lines determining the precise orientation before firing the reentry rockets.
So I used my wrist watch for time," he later recalled, "my eyeballs out the window for altitude. Then I fired my retrorockets at the right time and landed right by the carrier." (via Wikipedia)

Gordon Cooper's Bulova Accutron Astronaut
So which wrist watch did he use?   In actual fact Gordon Cooper was wearing two wristwatches: An Omega Chronograph and a Bulova Accutron.  As to which watch he used for reentry calculation - well the Omega Speedmaster enthusiasts will say an Omega Speedmaster and the Bulova Accutron collectors will say the Accutron. Although the majority are on the side of the Omega Speedmaster - Most of the consensus rests on the fact that Gordon Cooper brought the Bulova Accutron along on Faith 7 to double check the timing of the Omega Speedmaster. Gordon Cooper used the Omega Speedmaster to monitor the firing sequence of the retro rockets for atmospheric reentry.

 Upon returning, NASA presented Gordon Cooper with a Timex Wristwatch as a welcome back gift.  This watch cropped up at a Heritage Auction in 2009 together with a letter written by Gordon Cooper himself, acknowledging the authenticity of the watch.

With the return of Gordon Cooper in the Faith 7 the Mercury Era had ended and NASA had their sites set on the Gemini and Apollo Missions.  Every component and aspect of the Mercury Missions were analyzed by a crew of newly appointed NASA engineers.  New equipment and instruments including wristwatches worn by the astronauts  were chosen for rigorous testing.

Gemini & Apollo Missions - Omega Speedmaster Professional: 

The astronauts approached Deke Slayton, Operations Director at NASA and one of the Original Mercury 7,  to find and provide an official wristwatch for training and in-flight use. 
Deke Slayton took this request very seriously and sent an internal memo to the engineers:

Ed Mitchell Omega Speedmaster Apollo 14
A requirement exists for a highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews as an essential adjunct, or as a backup for spacecraft timing devices and for accomplishing time critical operations and experimental tests. In order to select a chronograph which best meets our overall requirements, it is necessary to accomplish a comparative evaluation of the better quality "off the shelf" chronographs under realistic operational conditions. The evaluation will take place during such flight crew training programs as the Gemini Mission Simulators, during spacecraft and other flight equipment testing in the altitude chambers, egress and recovery exercises, planetarium reviews, and during the first two manned Gemini flights. The evaluation will be of the basic "off the shelf" items; however, an analysis will also be made of any additional features and/or modifications that may be required.
It is highly desirable that we commence with this evaluation at an early date so that a standard flight crew chronograph can be obtained prior to the longer duration Gemini flights and the Apollo flights. The evaluation items should be available during the preflight training for the first two manned Gemini flight crews, which are now in progress. On this basis, quotations from various chronograph manufacturers meeting the specifications as listed in analogue 1, Statement of Specifications, should be reviewed by this organization by October 21, 1964. Immediately subsequent to this date, it is our intent to purchase locally at least one of each brand that meets, or very nearly meets, these specifications. Off the shelf chronographs which very nearly meet the specifications may be considered if they, in other regards, surpass the overall specifications. The manufacturer in this case may choose to reply to the request for quotations, however, NASA-MSC will make the determination as to whether or not the chronograph will be subsequently evaluated. It is estimated that a total of twelve chronographs are required for evaluation purposes.

  James Ragan - engineer - suggested a list of manufacturers: .Elgin, Benrus,Hamilton, Mido, Lucien Piccard
OMEGA, Bulova, Rolex, Longines, Gruen   Four Brands responded, providing NASA with two watches each for testing.

The testing included:

  "The tests which ensued were designed literally to test the watches to destruction. The watches were subjected to temperatures ranging from 71° to 93° centigrade over a two day period, after which they were frozen to -18° centigrade. They were placed in a vacuumed chamber heated to 93° centigrade, and then subjected to a test where they were heated to 70° centigrade and then immediately frozen to -18° centigrade – not once but fifteen times in rapid succession! When this had been completed, it was time to subject the watches to 40 g shocks in six different directions, then submit them to high and low pressures, an atmosphere of 93% humidity, a highly corrosive 100% oxygen environment,  noise to 130 decibels and finally vibrated with average accelerations of 8.8 g. In the end only one watch had survived: the Speedmaster. Interestingly, after each test the watch would settle to an average rate which was largely within the NASA imposed limits of five seconds per day during normal use."
Source: Official Omega Website

Omega did not even know that their Speedmaster was the one that qualified for man missions to space until the release of the Gemini IV mission photographs. After finding out, Omega renamed the Omega Speedmaster to Omega Speedmaster Professional.  The name stands until today.

American Made Bulova was not impressed - how could NASA choose the Swiss Brand Omega over the American Brand Bulova. Apparently there was an investigation and the Omega Speedmaster was found to  display the most integrity in space. However, I cannot deny there is much internet and forum murmurings on how Omega became the Official NASA watch, but until sound proof is found - rumors will be rumors.

It may seem strange that Omega did not know  their Omega Speedmaster had become the chosen timepiece for the NASA astronauts- but judging from a snip it  (left) from the Leader Times Kittanning, PA - May 20th, 1963 - "American Astronauts are prohibited from endorsing commercial products"

From the article however its apparent the Russians had a different take. Russian Astronaut, Gherman Titov" appeared in a Magazine endorsing a Russian-made wristwatch (probably a Sturmanskie). Gherman Titov was a highly decorated astronaut who on August 6th, 1961 who on Vostok 2 became the second person to orbit the earth and the fourth person up in space and the first to Orbit the earth multiple times (17).
The Soviets took advertisements to a new level whereby hundreds of products endorsed the Soviet Space program.

On June 16th, 1963 - on board the Vostok 6, the first women in space,  Valentina Tereshkova wore a Sturmanskie timepiece.

Strela Chronograph
Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov - Voskhod 2 - Strela 

The watch worn during the first spacewalk performed on March 18th, 1965 by Russian cosmonaut Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov during the Voskhod-2 was a Strela. He was in space for 12 minutes and 9 seconds. The Strela was actually based on the Venus Caliber 175 movement designed by horological genius Andre Frey of  Fabrique d'Ebauches Vénus S.A (now Minerva).  The Strela had a Column Wheel Chronograph and two sub dials: A 45 minute totalizer and a constant seconds sub dial. In addition a central chronograph  hand tracked seconds. The case material was a humble chrome plated base metal.  These watches were only available to the Soviet Air Force.The Strela was often said to be the Russian version of the Omega Speedmaster.

In space exploration years that followed, cosmonauts wore a variety of different brands since Russia was not as stringent as NASA in terms of  watch regulations. Often cosmonauts were spotted with, Sturmanskie,  Sekonda and OKEAH.  Other movements like the Poljot 3133 based on the Valjoux 7734-Russians purchased the machinery from the Swiss in 1974, replaced the Strela. For more info Click here for an intriguing component by component detail of the Pojot 3133 and Valjoux 7734 similarities and differences.  
After Quartz erupted on stage Digital watches were a common site around the wrists of cosmonauts.

Gemini IV Mission Photographs Shows Newly Issued Omega Speedmaster

On June 3rd, 1965  Ed White wore an Omega Speedmaster 105.003 secured with velcro and a long nylon strap to the outside of the left-side sleeve of his G4C spacesuit, during the first American Space Walk.

Click here for a well documented time-line of Omega in the Gemini and Apollo Missions.

Although the Omega Speedmasters were the Official Watch Worn by Astronauts, they were allowed to bring along a second watch.  Jack Swigert wore a Pepsi Rolex GMT on the Apollo 13 mission - Click here for an in depth look at Rolex Watches in Space. ; Timex became a favorite among astronauts later on; 

Russian Cosmonauts Sporting Fortis Timepieces

In 1994, after two years of intense testing at the Yuri Gagarin Russian State Scientific-Research Test Center of Cosmonauts Training in Star City, Fortis watches have become the official timepiece issued to cosmonauts.  The first crew to embark on a mission with a Fortis on their wrist was the EUROMIR crew.  Now all Russian cosmonauts at the Gagarin Center are presented with a Fortis.

 NASA has increased their list of acceptable watches to include the following: 

  • Omega Speedmaster Professional 3570.50.00
  • Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33
  • Casio G-Shock DW-5600C
  • Casio G-Shock DW-5600E
  • Casio G-Shock DW-5900
  • Casio G-Shock DW-6900
  • Timex IRONMAN Triathlon Data Link  
(This list is from 2008 - there may be some model changes)
The latest watch in space to make space history:


Felix Baumgartner - Stratosphere Free Fall - Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th: 

On October 14th, 2012, Zenith Ambassador,  Felix Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier during an 833mph free fall of 128,100 feet from the stratosphere, strapped to his wrist ,outside his spacesuit, was a Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th. The Zenith Stratos was specially designed to withstand the immense velocity during the fall. The 30 mm specially reinforced stainless steel case housing an exceptional 326-component El Primero Automatic movement as well as the Striking 10 and Flyback Function.This watch is the first watch to cross the sound barrier in a near space environment.
Watch Felix


  1. In his biography "Leap of faith", HarperCollins 2000, Gordon Cooper says on page 59: "In addition to my Omega wristwatch, which had lost time during the heavy G loads I had experienced during liftoff, I was wearing an Accutron watch, which was still keeping accurate time. I followed the count on it, prepared to fire on my own if I lost contact with John. "Five-four-three-two-one", John recited. "Fire""
    You see, it was neither the Omega nor the Accutron what was used for reentry calculation, it was John Glenn aboard the tracking ship Coastal Sentry.

  2. In his biography "Leap of faith", HarperCollins 2000, Gordon Cooper says on page 59: "In addition to my Omega wristwatch, which had lost time during the heavy G loads I had experienced during liftoff, I was wearing an Accutron watch, which was still keeping accurate time. I followed the count on it, prepared to fire on my own if I lost contact with John. "Five-four-three-two-one", John recited. "Fire""
    You see, it was neither the Omega nor the Accutron what was used for for reentry calculation, it was John Glenn aboard the tracking ship Coastal Sentry.

  3. The belief that "Automatics do not work where there is no gravity" is false.

    There's still Inertia in space so, in fact, they work just fine.


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  5. Gemini IV astronauts Ed White & James McDivitt each wore a pair of Omega Speedmaster 105.003-64 chronographs

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  9. Edward White wore two Omega Speedmaster 105.003-64 chronographs on the outside of his spacesuit, whil Alexei Leonov wore a 1StMoscow Watch Factury "Strela" (Russian for Arrow) wrist watch underneath his Berkut spacesuit. More info: MoonwatchUniverse

  10. Hi Vicky,
    I have a very specific question about one of the photos used in this article. How can I contact you about it?

  11. Solar powered watches don't have a battery that you need to change, but an internal capacitor that will power the watch for several months when fully charged. Casio, and a number of other manufacturers also offer solar powered watches. Montre Pulsar