During the 1960s, tensions between the United States and Russia were at their highest point in history. The threat of nuclear attack seemed all too possible, with highly advanced long-range rockets being developed, carrying with them the capability to devastate a nation. While this threat was, in almost all respects, a terrible thing, the technology would go on to enable space exploration. In August of 1957, the Russians successfully launched the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, and shortly after, launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1. This series of events would lead to what is now known as the Space Race; a battle between the two nations to send man to the Moon. Behind the scenes, there was a horological space-race brewing between a multitude of brands, hoping their watch would adorn the wrists of the daring, military test-pilots, turned astronauts. The watch to be selected was, of course, the Omega Speedmaster, however, we at A Collected Man decided it's time we took a look at the men behind these space-flown icons.
The astronaut in question is Richard F. “Dick” Gordon jr., a former American Naval Officer, aviator, test-pilot and proud Omega Speedmaster owner. Like many other future-astronauts of this time, Dick was a test pilot during the early days of the Jet-age; a perilous profession with an extremely high rate of injury and death. The transition from propellor, to jet-propelled aircraft following WWII ran into a great number of unexpected issues, which could result in a loss of control of the aircraft. It certainly took a great deal of courage on the part of these thrill-seeking individuals, who were completing tests in aircraft which were yet to be certified as safe. During Dick’s years of testing, he would fly the F-8U Crusader, the F-11-F Tiger and the FJ Fury to name a few; all decidedly American-sounding names. Gordon wound-up being selected as a part of NASA’s Astronaut Group Three, along with thirteen other individuals, who were considered to have the ‘right stuff’. Only sixteen men had been selected previous to Gordon’s group, many of whom lost their lives.
This Omega Speedmaster, which was assigned to Gordon through NASA, is the reference 105.012, the fifth evolution of the model since 1957. The most noticeable difference between this model and previous generations was the introduction of the ‘twisted’ lugs and a crown guard. The older case design, which featured flat lugs and sides, left the crown exposed and therefore susceptible to movement damage, should it take a knock. The Speedmaster experienced two introductions to space-exploration, the first of which was with astronaut Walter M Schirra on the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission of 1962. Schirra was selected as one of the Mercury Seven, also referred to as the Original Seven, and the choice of watch was apparently entirely his; unthinkable by modern NASA standards. This leniency to mission-watch selection wouldn’t last for long, as it was logically decided that watches should be tested upon and assigned as part of each astronaut’s official equipment. It’s widely documented that a number of watch manufacturers submitted examples to James H. Ragan for testing, though, all but one, would fall short of the rigorous requirements for flight approval. The movement used in these early generations is based on a Lemania caliber; a brand name which has become all too forgotten for its behind-the-scenes involvement in what would become, the first Moon watch. The caliber in question is the Lemania 2310, which, when modified by Omega becomes known as the caliber 321. It’s thought that roughly 40,000 movements were ordered by Omega, intended for use in multiple lines within the collection. This means that relatively speaking, there were very few 321 caliber movements assigned this generation of Speedmaster, making it particularly rare and collectible.
The pictured Speedmaster would accompany Gordon on the Apollo XII lunar landing mission, following-on from the success of the famous Moon landing of 1969. This second lunar landing went somewhat under the radar, understandably, however, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama and significance. The primary objective of the Apollo XII mission was to refine the precision of landing, to collect samples, and to bring the first colour television camera to the surface, although this was destroyed when astronaut Alan L. Bean pointed it directly at the Sun. The mission came seconds from disaster during take-off, after the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning, causing electrical systems to go haywire. The adverse weather conditions are said to have been somewhat discounted because the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, was in attendance to witness the launch. Fortunately, the issues were managed by the crew and they were en-route to the Moon. Gordon’s role was to man the ‘Yankee Clipper’; a vehicle which would remain in orbit for the duration of the Moon-walk, where he would experience numerous ‘Earth-rises’ over a period of 38 hours. His objective during this time was to take photographs of the Moon’s surface, and the occasional ‘Earth-rise’. In an interview with one of the few men to have experienced a solo flight to the dark side of the Moon, Gordon was asked if it was lonely out there, to which he replied, “…With those guys gone, I finally had room to move around”.
During the Moon-walk, the Speedmasters are subjected to temperatures of around 123 degrees centigrade; a temperature at which most watches would fail miserably. The chronograph function was used to monitor their time away from the lunar-landing module, enabling them to simply and effectively manage their remaining oxygen and exposure time. Following the second ever Moon-walk, the astronauts were reconnected in the ‘Yankee Clipper’ to make their re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere. The module would endure speeds of 11 miles per second and temperatures of nearly 3000 degrees centigrade; managed by a dissipating outer shell which sheds material as it re-enters, much like a meteorite.
The days of the heroic astronaut seem all too far behind us, which is a terrible shame, however, the significance of the Omega Speedmaster remains stronger than ever. While the object may have become an icon of sorts, the men who dared to tackle the final-frontier are the true adventurers that made the watch great. For those of us who daydream of space-exploration, the Speedmaster is that one baby-step closer to being one of the lucky few, to view the fragile blue planet from a far. We would like to extend a thank you to the good men at the Omega Museum and a thank you to the Smithsonian Museum, from which, the watches are on loan.