The race to space during the 1950s and ‘60s between Russia and the United States, created a period of technological advancement like no other. What began as a program to develop long-range nuclear missiles, carrying with them the capability of devastating an entire nation, quickly morphed into a battle to be the first to conquer the final frontier. After the Russians managed to put the first man-made satellite into orbit, the United States set its sights on putting the first man on 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 for this instalment is Thomas P. Stafford, a former American Air Force officer, test-pilot and proud Omega Speedmaster owner. Before commencing a potentially deadly career as a test pilot, Stafford piloted the F-86 Sabre; a swept-winged fighter jet which was created to contest with the similarly designed MiG-15 in high-speed dogfights during the Korean War. The F-86 Sabre took its first flight in 1947, and had been designed based on technology developed for the German Luftwaffe during the early years of WWII. Like many other future-astronauts, Stafford was a test pilot during the early days of the jet-age; a profession with a death-rate which would unsettle even the most daring risk-takers. The type of character would be described as having ‘the right stuff’, and would be testing aircraft which had yet to be certified as ‘safe’. Many of these pilots became potential candidates to be among the first to go to space, being selected in small groups. Stafford was accepted into NASA Group Two, which later became known as ‘The New Nine’.
The pictured Speedmaster would accompany Stafford on a number of missions including Gemini 6A & 9, as well as Apollo 10. Project Gemini was NASA’s second program of human spaceflight, and was intended to assist with developing the agency’s methods of manoeuvring the spacecraft during docking, and perfecting extra-vehicular activity. Following the success of the Gemini missions, Stafford was selected to command the Apollo 10 mission in May 1969, which was effectively a ‘dry-run’ for the Moon landing. The mission would take Stafford, John W. Young and Eugene A. Cernan to the Moon, to test all the components and procedures which would be used for the iconic landing. The Lunar Module, code named Snoopy, would detach from the command module, Charlie Brown, and descend to 8.4 nautical miles above the lunar surface. At this point, on the following mission, Snoopy would make its final descent to put Man on the Moon.
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 Moonwatch. 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 Omega Speedmaster, which was assigned to Stafford through NASA, is the reference 105.003, the fourth evolution of the model since 1957. The design of the 105.003 case versus later iterations was far more simple, with straight lugs and no crown guard. Later cases, following development notes from NASA, featured protection for the crown and more elaborate ‘twisted’ lugs. These early cased watches are beginning to break auction records, if found in spectacular condition. One such example (a CK2915-1) from 1957, the first Speedmaster Omega made, auctioned for $275,508; an astonishing figure; and would become the reference to be re-issued upon the 60th anniversary last year.
During spacewalks, the watches are exposed to temperatures like no other, exceeding 120 degrees Celsius (250 degrees Fahrenheit) and minus 160 degrees Celsius (-250 degrees Fahrenheit). The chronograph function on the watch was used to time spacewalks, tracking oxygen levels and exposure time. Following the mission, the astronauts would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, setting a new speed record of 24,791 mph, which produced temperatures of nearly 3000 degrees Celsius on the outer shell of the re-entry module.
While space exploration has been somewhat in hibernation over the past few decades, we seem to find ourselves in the dawn of a new era of space travel. Elon Musk’s attempts to create a profitable industry out of it, are increasing the likelihood of a trip to the Red Planet by as early as 2024. The only questions is, will Buzz Aldrin’s rumoured ‘Mars watch’ be on the wrists of those on that mission. The Speedmaster has become an icon and its reputation remains ever-present, however, 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. We would also like to thank NASA for providing free access to many of the photos above.
For more information please visit the Omega website by clicking here.