Posted on February 26 2018
It may seem a little surprising when you look back at the space race and the technology the two Superpowers brought to the table. Everything looks dated. From the cumbersome, slow computers to the astronauts uniforms. It can take a little bit of imagination to picture what that world looked like then.
No internet, no mobile phones, and no digital watches.
The first Space flight was in 1961. The same year the Jaguar E-Type was launched and the contraceptive pill was made available on the NHS. In Britain the farthing coin, used since the 13th century, had just ceased to be legal tender. Harold Macmillan was the Prime Minister and The Beatles hadn't yet met Brian Epstein. In America an unknown Bob Dylan was making his way to New York.
The measurement of time was crucial to the success of these early missions, and as we'll see, it wasn't necessarily the same measurements as used on Earth. Watchmaking technology, like the rest of that used, was fairly limited.
Initially the watches available to NASA and the Russian Space program were essentially the same as those available to the public. High quality precision instruments no doubt, but nothing specifically designed for this job.
As the space race progressed so did the design of the watches. In Russia, under the Communist system, watches were designed and produced by state owned factories. Factories that now go down in watchmaking history. In the US the procedure was slightly different. The government went shopping. We've previously discussed this process here when looking at how the US government sources it's military watches.
What's so fascinating about the development of space watches is that it was a marriage of old mechanical timepieces with the space program's then cutting edge technology. Men orbiting the Earth in rockets but having to handwind their watches. Added to that is the development of these watches as the functional needs became apparent.
For watch nerds there's also the stories of these space pioneers who had their own individual influence on this history. Astronauts and cosmonauts who chose their own watches or collaborated with manufacturers to get the watches that they needed.
Speaking of the moon landings, SciFi author J.G. Ballard said that they had killed the public's interest in space exploration. Man had landed on the moon and there was nothing there. Elon Musk's SpaceX may be promising new frontiers in space exploration but it doesn't quite capture our imagination the way those early flights did. That could explain why we enjoy the history of space exploration so much. For those in the past it represented a bold, ambitious future. For us now however, it is viewed as history, and for watch enthusiasts there's nothing more satisfying than watches associated with the historical high points of the 20th century.
We're going to have a look at ten of the most interesting watches used in space, putting them in a chronological order to highlight how these tools developed over the decades. There's some that are readily available to you as a consumer now. Some are a bit more expensive, but on the whole, these are watches that you could own. That's part of the appeal.
Sturmanskie Gagarin (1961)
Yuri Gagarin cemented his place in history when he became the first human in space. His Vostok 1 made one orbit of Earth in April 1961. It was a significant victory for Soviet Russia and a personal victory for Gagarin, a model communist. Capitalist America was now clearly behind in the space race.
That 108 minute mission had provided a number of firsts, most importantly demonstrating that a human could survive in space and cope with the zero gravity environment of space and the high speed of re-entry.
Gagarin wasn't just the first man in space. He was also the first man in space who needed a watch.
As noted earlier, like the other technology used it may be a little surprising how simple this watch is. Produced by Sturmanskie in the First Moscow Watch Factory, this is a reasonably straightforward, three handed, mechanical watch. Previously the watch had been issued to the Soviet Air Force and had no upgrades for use in space.
Stylistically it's a beautiful watch and one of the icons of Russian watch designs. It's spartan. Clean, simple and clearly an aviation watch. For that reason it's remained popular and Sturmanskie have released a number of versions over the decades. Currently they do a larger, titanium version as a part of their Gagarin Heritage line. Still with a handwinding Russian movement there's now also the addition of a Gagarin portrait on the case back.
Scott Carpenter's Modified Breitling Navitimer (1962)
In 1962, following John Glenn's initial flight, Carpenter became the second American to orbit Earth. Prior to this mission Carpenter had worn Breitling Navitimer's during his military service. However, because of the lack of day and night during space travel he approached Breitling with the idea of incorporating a 24-hour dial instead of the normal 12-hour dial into a watch. Breitling agreed and produced the 24-hour Navitimer which Carpenter wore in his Aurora 7 spacecraft.
Breitling later produced the 24-hour version as the so-called Cosmonaute Navitimer - under both Breitling and AOPA logos. This was arguably the first watched created for use in space after having direct input from the astronaut who was to wear it.
Due to system malfunctions during the mission, Carpenter's re-entry flight overshot it's planned splashdown by 250 miles. At the time there was a real concern that he hadn't survived the landing, although he was located, cold and wet, 3 hours later. Unfortunately, his watch wasn't water resistant and suffered serious damage and then was subsequently lost when sent for repairs. So his modified original is MIA.
However, Breitling currently produce a Navitimer Cosmonaute line and have in the past released a limited edition Scott Carpenter version. There's now a number of variations available, all clearly recognisable as the classic Navitimer design.
Poljot Strela (1965)
The Russians began their human space program with Vostok 1, the flight that took the first man into space. The later Voskhod 2 mission of 1965 was groundbreaking in it's own way because it was during this flight that Alexey Leonov performed the world's first space walk. Leonov wasn't a typical military man. Having trained as an artist he took his art materials on the flight and following his cosmonaut career released a number of books of his artwork.
It therefore seems fitting that he wore a beautiful Strela Chronograph during his space walk. The first man exposed to open space timed the event with this iconic Russian chronograph.
The space walk itself encountered a number of problems and like Carpenter’s flight resulted in the crafts re-entry overshooting the planned landing point by 200 miles. Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut were therefore left stranded in a freezing forest, without heating, whilst being harassed by hungry bears and wolves.
By all accounts his Poljot Strela watch was one of the few pieces of kit that worked as it should. A standard issue watch for the Air Force and Cosmonauts, this was a functional chronograph that also happened to be stylishly designed. There’s a number of variations of this watch, but Leonov’s white dialed version with gold indices is a particularly attractive version. His watch had a diameter of 37mm, making it a little small for modern tastes. However, the current Strela range does include larger versions, now powered by the famous Poljot 3133 chronograph movement.
Omega Speedmaster Professional (1969)
Omega’s ‘Moonwatch’ is arguably the king of space watches. The watch was worn in 1969 by Buzz Aldrin during the first manned lunar landing marking it out as one of the most iconic watches of the 20th century.
Originally the Speedmaster was designed as a sports chronograph, although it was naturally favoured by pilots. When, in the mid 1960’s, NASA solicited bids for watches to be used in the space program, the shortlist consisted of Rolex, Omega and Longines. Following a series of tests the Speedmaster was officially chosen as the NASA approved watch.
1965’s Gemini 3 mission was the first to use these officially qualified watches and later that year Ed White wore one as he made the first American space walk during Gemini 4. The watch was subsequently worn on Apollo 11, the moon landing.
Typically, the story isn’t quite as straightforward as you’d expect. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, decided to leave his Speedmaster in the craft as a backup. So it was Buzz Aldrin, his colleague, who took his own watch on to the moon's surface 9 minutes later. As he said:
“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”
Sadly, this is another historically significant watch that is now lost. This time when Aldrin sent it to The Smithsonian.
The watch itself is a black faced chronograph with the sub-dials arranged in a Compx layout at 3,6 and 9 - similar to the legendary Rolex Daytona. With it’s back tachymeter and slim white hands it’s a subtle and stylish watch, and along with the Sea-master, is at the forefront of Omega’s range.
Bulova 96B251 (1971)
1971’s Apollo 15 mission was interesting for watch enthusiasts because the missions commander Dave Scott damaged his Speedmaster during EVA-2, a lunar walk. During EVA-3 he wore a backup Bulova chronograph prototype that he’d agreed to test out for a friend. This was the only privately owned watch to reach the moon’s surface and it subsequently sold at auction for $1.6m.
Bulova have recently created a modern quartz version of this watch, the Lunar Pilot Chronograph. This modern replica has the specifications you’d expect, a high performance quartz movement, stainless steel case and 50m water resistance.
Seiko Pogue 6139-6002 (1973)
Like the Bulova this watch wasn't meant to go into space. Omega were still the official suppliers to the NASA space program. Bulova had failed to convince NASA to buy American and had resorted to having their watch taken as a personal backup by Scott. This time it was more of a personal decision by an individual astronaut.
So as expected, on the 1973 Skylab 4 mission Colonel William Pogue wore an Omega Speedmaster. However, on his left wrist he took an unauthorised Japanese Seiko with him. Thus another watch legend was born.
There’s quite a contrast to the classic black design of the Speedmaster. With a barrel style case, gold dial and pepsi style bezel this watches oozes vintage charm. Where the Omega appears more professional the Seiko seems more fashionable. Whilst the case is angular and harsh in appearance, the bright colours are almost playful. With two crowns and a subdial it's quite a busy looking watch, but that just adds to the impression that you're wearing a functional tool, despite the bold design.
Sinn 140/142 (1985)
German watchmakers Sinn have their roots in aviation, having been founded in 1961 by ex-pilot Helmut Sinn. The first use of a Sinn watch in space came in 1985 when German astronaut Reinhard Furrer wore a PVD version of the 140S during Spacelab D1 - a mission funded by West Germany. This was the last successful mission of Space Shuttle Challenger before it broke apart during an unsuccessful launch the following year.
Sinn claim that the 140S was the first mechanical chronograph to be used in space, and that is true if we don’t count Colonel Pogue’s unauthorised Seiko. What isn’t in doubt is that Sinn watches continued to be used successfully in space missions during the early 1990’s earning the brand well deserved kudos.
This handsome watch has been recreated as a limited edition now labelled as the 140A.
Fortis B-42 (1994)
Since 1994 Swiss Manufacturer Fortis have been the official watch supplier to the Russian Federal Space Agency. In 1995 NASA and the Russian space agency began an new era of international space cooperation when the US Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir for the first time. During the preparation for this docking Fortis automatic chronographs performed their first mission in open space.
Now with 100,000 Earth orbits Fortis are arguably the holder of the longest use in weightless conditions.
The watch the company chose to produce for the Russian Space agency is a black dialed automatic chronograph with a touch of colour on the second hand. It’s a chunky 42mm’s and has a rotating bezel and tachymeter.
In 1997 the same watch, the Fortis Official Cosmonauts Chronograph, became the official watch of the German-Russian space mission MIR 97.
Fiyta Spacemaster (2008)
Founded in 1987, Fiyta is a fairly young Chinese watch manufacturer.
Although they first began supplying Chinese astronauts with watches in 2003 the Spacemaster is the best known of their space watches. This watch was created for the Shenzhou 7 mission during which Zhai Zhigang made the first ever space walk by a Chinese astronaut. On his wrist was an over-sized specially commissioned Spacemaster.
This watch contained a number of specifications stipulated by the Chinese administration, including a special anti-magnetic shield, AM/PM indication, an 8 hours rotating bezel, anti-clockwise locking crown and a tolerance of temperatures between -80° to +80° Celsius. For this last feature Fiyta had to invent a new lubricant that would allow the watch to continue working despite vast the temperature changes.
The Spacemaster is now available in a more comfortable 45mm version and a small limited edition in the original 54mm case.
R.O. 1 Space (2011)
Dutch company R.O began as a jewellers before moving into watch design.
In 2005 Roland Oostwegel began to design his watch, with the overarching idea that it is outside forces that cause the most damage to watches. He noted
“In the end, I succeeded in creating a shock system that protects the timepiece from bumps and forces from outside. The result was a stunning piece of technology, quality and elegance: the RO1”
In 2010 Oostwegel met Dutch ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers during testing activities of the R.O.1 Shock-System. Kuipers told him about losing his sense of time during his first space mission in 2004. He also told Oostwegel that he wasn’t the only astronaut complaining about this phenomenon.
The result was the redesigned R.O.1 SPACE Special Edition.
The original watch for Kuipers was produced in carbon fibre to minimise it’s weight, however the watches now available to the public are also made from stainless steel, titanium, gold or ceramics. These limited edition watches are powered by a mechanical Swiss Chronograph movement and have a modest diameter for 44mm.
That brings us up to date. Although not an exhaustive list it outlines the best and most important watches worn in space. As man next looks to land on Mars be sure to keep an eye on the wrists of all the main players.