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The First Watches in Space

You'll be over the moon for this look at watches in space.

The success of Elon Musk’s Space X endeavors has brought the “final frontier” (thanks, Star Trek) back to the fore for many around the world, including this watch freak. When Space X launched the first crewed Dragon capsule recently, I was glued to the television for the launch and later caught up with the docking watching a NASA YouTube video. It brought back fond memories of watching the Gemini and Apollo missions on a portable black and white television in the second half of the last century.

So, I started thinking about what watches the astronauts and cosmonauts wore on the early missions into outer space. When you look at the space capsules and the crude instruments and controls, taking a reliable timepiece along for the ride made sense. This is especially true for the astronauts who came from their respective air forces where they flew fixed-wing aircraft. Pilots need and use wristwatches, something reliable for timing routes if instruments fail.

The Space Race and the Cold War – the Russians Strike First

The space race between America and Russia was an extension of the Cold War. Each superpower relied on technological supremacy to retain “bragging rights” for the best, biggest, most powerful, and first. When the Russians launched the Sputnik, it sent shock waves through America. The US quickly punched its own satellite into orbit. However, NASA got hammered again when Russia put the first human into outer space, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok 1.

Pobeda Sturmanskie

The watch that Yuri took with him for this historic moment was a Pobeda (later Poljot) Sturmanskie 15-jewel watch. It is likely the one he was issued when he graduated from the Russian military Orenberg flight school.

Notice in the simplicity of the timepiece, your basic three-hand watch. It is hand-wound rather than automatic because some scientists (those would be the famous ‘rocket’ scientists) thought an automatic watch would not work in zero gravity.

The watch also features a screw-down case back, and there is a small bit of Geneva striping visible on the bridge. The watch also featured a hacking movement, a feature that allows the watch to be synchronized with other timepieces.

America responds

America was not to be denied their moment in the sun and responded with their Mercury capsules. Records indicate that Scott Carpenter, pilot of the Mercury 7 capsule, wore a Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute 809 when he flew into space on 24 May 1962. This was a manually wound, three-eye chronograph with a 24-hour movement rather than a 12-hour.

Why did Breitling produce a watch with a 24-hour dial? Actually, they did it when Scott Carpenter suggested the need. In space, the traditional concept of day and night is eliminated as the spacecraft orbits the Earth. With a 24-hour dial, the wearer could use it to recreate their Earthly sleep and wake cycle.

The first spacewalk

The contest turned back in the Soviet’s favor when on 18 March 1965, Alexei Leonov successfully completed the first spacewalk, spending 12 minutes and 9 seconds outside his capsule. He flew with another Poljot timepiece, this time an FSWF (First State Watch Factory) manually wound Strela chronograph.

Poljot Strela

The Poljot Strela was the first watch to make a space walk

First to the moon

One thing that can be said of the Space Race was that it was fascinating for anyone interested in outer space. I remember writing away for special reports for our Compton’s Encyclopedia, giving the latest in American space progress. Unlike today, the encyclopedia was hardbound, and getting my excerpts took. A far cry from today and the internet!

Eventually, NASA took the lead for good when the US put the first humans on the Moon. I remember that day very well. It was 20 July 1969, a typically hot and muggy day in Southwest Virginia. I was working at my Dad’s service station and had a small black and white portable TV set up on a display case. Fortunately, everyone was home watching the landing, so I was able to sit and absorb the moment. It was a fantastic thing to see a human step onto the surface of the Moon.

 

Buzz Aldrin

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin

The first watch on the surface of the Moon was an Omega Speedmaster. Buzz Aldrin wore this manually wound three-eye chronograph during the flight and later on the surface of the Moon.

“[The Speedmaster] was optional to wear while we were walking on the surface of the Moon ... 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 around the outside of my bulky spacesuit.”

--Buzz Aldrin, in Return to Earth

Now that’s a watch guy!

You might think that a watch isn’t that important in a space mission. After all, don’t spacecraft have lots of computers and controls? The value of the Speedmaster was proven in the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. A fire destroyed many of the instruments and controls. Jack Swigert used his Speedmaster to time the 14-second burn of the lunar lander’s descent engines. This precise timing allowed the crew to return to Earth Safely.

How does a timepiece become a space watch?

The Speedmaster was the official timepiece of the US space program at the time. It remained in regular use for many years. The lore surrounding the use of watches indicates that astronauts took their personal watch on their missions, and early on, this was true.

The Speedmaster watches worn by astronauts Walter Schirra (Mercury Sigma 7 mission, 1962), Richard F. Gordon, Jr. (Apollo 12, 1969) and Thomas P. Stafford (Gemini 6, 1965).

Soon, however, NASA decided to run a legitimate selection and procurement process. To become a NASA “space watch,” the timepiece had to pass the following tests:

  • High temperature: 48 hours at 160 °F (71 °C) followed by 30 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C)
  • Low temperature: Four hours at 0 °F (−18 °C)
  • Temperature cycling in near-vacuum: Fifteen cycles of heating to 160 °F (71 °C) for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to 0 °F (−18 °C) for 45 minutes at 10−6 atm
  • Humidity: 250 hours at temperatures between 68 °F (20 °C) and 160 °F (71 °C) at relative humidity of 95%
  • Oxygen environment: 100% oxygen at 0.35 atm and 71 °C for 48 hours
  • Shock: Six 11-Ms 40-g shocks from different directions
  • Linear acceleration: from 1 to 7.25 g within 333 seconds
  • Low pressure: 90 minutes at 10−6 atm at 160 °F (71 °C), followed by 30 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C)
  • High pressure: 1.6 atm for one hour
  • Vibration: three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz with a minimum 8.8 g impulse
  • Acoustic noise: 30 minutes at 130 dB from 40 to 10,000 Hz

There were four contenders, Breitling, Omega, Rolex, and Longines-Wittnauer. The Omega Speedmaster won, passing all the tests while staying within about 5 seconds per day. Eventually, NASA approved the Timex Ironman and Casio G-Shock for spaceflight; however, only the Omega is approved for use during an extravehicular activity (EVA).

What's next for space watches?

Certainly, electronics will play a big part in space watches. The Bulova Accutron was the first electronic timepiece to be used by NASA. However, it was panel-mounted rather than worn. My money is on mechanical watches holding a significant portion of the space watch segment for a simple reason, reliability. Quartz and smartwatches rely on batteries, and if they cannot be charged, they become worthless. A mechanical watch, either wound or automatic, will work just fine in zero-g. For spacefarers facing an Apollo 13 situation, a working mechanical watch may be a lifesaver.

The LIV 300m Ceramic Diver in Harvest Moon

Can you take your LIV watch to space?

While getting an official NASA-approved tag for a watch is difficult, any of the LIV models can undoubtedly survive that journey. LIV Watches are built to the same, and often better, standards as the high-end brands that have flown in space. No matter where your adventures take you, a LIV watch can go with you to time the adventure. And do it with a unique flair.

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