Noah von Hatten
6 min readDec 21, 2023

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Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. — The strap of his Omega Speedmaster is visible on his left wrist.

Ask a random person, watch nerd or not, if they’ve heard of the Omega Speedmaster, and you’re quite likely to hear “yes”. Ask them what makes it special, they’ll probably tell you something about NASA and the Apollo lunar missions.

Ask them why the Speedmaster accompanied astronauts to space, and what they used it for up there, you’ll find you’re a lot less likely to get an answer.

While the watch itself is very famous for its extra-terrestrial use, how it got be the only watch NASA ever certified for use in Space, and what purpose it served on missions is considerably less well-known.

Omega ref. 145.012–67 Speedmaster cal. 321, as worn on the moon by Apollo astronauts.

Omega’s relationship with NASA began in the nineteen-sixties. The first time a Speedmaster went to space it accompanied astronaut Wally Schirra on October 3, 1962 on the Mercury Sigma 7 mission. Unofficially. NASA hadn’t yet properly qualified the watch for use on missions when Schirra took his personal Speedmaster with him into orbit.

On March 1, 1965, at the height of the Space Race, NASA officially certified the Omega Speedmaster for use on manned missions to space, including EVA use. (Extra-vehicular activities, ie. “space walks”.) Having satisfied themselves that it met the requirements they set for a space-going watch.

It was famously used throughout the Apollo missions, and landed on the moon for the first time with Apollo 11. It continues to accompany astronauts to space today.

Daniel Zimmermann from Bayern, Deutschland (Germany), CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The qualification followed a gruelling trial sometimes colloquially referred to as “torture”, during which four watches from different companies were tested.

Initially NASA contacted ten manufacturers asking them to provide hand-wound mechanical chronographs for consideration. Only four companies responded.

Rolex, with a pre-daytona chronograph, Longines-Wittnauer with a 242T chrono, (we think, the exact model isn’t known), Omega with a Speedmaster, and Hamilton with a pocket-watch chronograph.

Aside: Hamilton was immediately disqualified, since NASA asked for a wrist watch that could be worn on missions, and they delivered a pocket watch. No one knows what they were thinking.

The Omega was the only watch to survive the intense battery of heat, humidity, magnetism, and shock tests that NASA designed to simulate the harsh environment, gravity variations, and temperature fluctuations of outer-space. In fact, the Rolex actually stopped working… twice!

Later, in the nineteen-eighties, it passed a second sequence of tests to qualify it for the Space Shuttle missions.

The Speedmaster remains the only watch ever produced to be officially endorsed by NASA for use in space. Also, thanks to accompanying astronauts on dozens of trips into orbit and beyond as part of their standard issue equipment, it’s with certainty the watch that has spend the most amount of time in space.

Daniel Zimmermann from Bayern, Deutschland (Germany), CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s only one known instance where an Omega Speedmaster failed during a mission.

In 1971, during the second day on the lunar surface, as part of the Apollo 15 mission, Commander David Scott’s Speedmaster broke. The hesalite crystal popped out. Probably due to the intense heat of the lunar surface.

As far as anyone knows, every other Speedmaster worked as intended. Commander Scott would go on to wear his Bulova Lunar Pilot on the mission, the only privately-owned watch ever used on a celestial body other than Earth.

The question still remains why? Why did NASA want to send mechanical watches, specifically hand-winding chronographs, into space with their astronauts?

Launching some of the most high-tech rockets of the day, working with the most cutting edge equipment available, why would NASA want something so rooted in traditional, old-school technology as a mechanical timepiece?

The chronograph aspect is probably the easiest thing to explain.

When it comes to space travel, everything is done in time intervals. Every second counts, literally. Course-corrections are performed through timed burns of the engines, for example. Being able to precisely time the length of a task in space is crucial to survival.

Apollo 13 Lunar Module after Undocking

Apollo 13 is an excellent example.

After the fateful oxygen tank explosion that marooned the astronauts on their way to the moon, nearly all equipment in the Apollo 13 command module and lunar lander had to be switched off to conserve power for the return trip. This included the sophisticated guidance computer and the electric clocks on board.

Nearing their re-entry point a course-correction was necessary in order to ensure that the capsule containing the three astronauts entered Earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle, and didn’t bounce off or burn up on the way down.

Without the help of the onboard electronic equipment, an Omega Speedmaster was used to time the 14 second burn that reoriented Apollo 13 back on to the correct trajectory.

Apollo 13’s Commander Jim Lovell actually confirmed that it was the Speedmaster they used. The infamous story of the mission is incredibly well detailed in Ron Howard’s unambiguously titled film: Apollo 13.

Considering that all three astronauts made it safely to Earth, thanks to the course-correction made with the help of the watch, and didn’t burn up on the way down, it could be said that the Omega Speedmaster saved their lives.

This brings up quite nicely the next point. Why mechanical?

Mechanical watches draw no power and don’t require batteries. The hand wind-wound movement of the Speedmaster ticked away accurately all on its own. Making it an ideal backup to the electronic systems of a space craft, should something go awry.

Shane Lin, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The requirement of a hand-winding movement is also an easily explainable choice.

An automatic watch features a rotor-balance, which, based on the movements of the wearer, winds the watch. However, without gravity, an automatic movement isn’t an effective option, as the rotor, which relies on gravity pulling it down to turn, wouldn’t rotate enough to wind a watch properly.

Additionally, it should be noted that a quartz watch wasn’t an option at the time that NASA first qualified the Speedmaster in sixty-five.

Later, as quartz watches became increasingly prominent, it can only be speculated the NASA couldn’t, or didn’t find a qualifying quartz watch that met their requirements.

A desire to stick to tradition is unlikely, but also possible. As is the possibility that it simply made sense to keep using a proven tool over something new.

It’s also possible that having a mechanical backup to electronic and digital systems was a consideration.

It’s amazing that something so futuristic as space travel has been, and remains, supported by something so historical and traditional as Swiss watch making.

The Omega Speedmaster will forever be closely tied to the history of space exploration. From the Apollo missions and the moon landings, to the Space Shuttle program, and the ISS.

Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean wearing his Omega Speedmaster

Going forward, Omega is continuing to work together with NASA as they prepare to send humans to the moon again on the Artemis missions.

And, rumour has it that Buzz Aldrin (yes, that Buzz Aldrin) is working together with both organisations to design a potential “Mars watch”, probably also based on the Speedmaster.

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Noah von Hatten

Writer, photographer, star gazer, watch-collector, and history enthusiast from Germany living in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies.