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In Awe of the Moonwatch: The History of the Omega Speedmaster

November 11, 2020

It's easy to take for granted the importance of time in modern society. Atomic clocks beam precise time to devices in our pockets and our homes constantly. You walk across a time zone, your devices update automatically.

We've always cared about keeping time because time directly relates to reality. Time isn't just money, but an important aspect of how we gauge the world. No timepiece has gone further or done more than the Omega Speedmaster.

In 2019, NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. It shows how fleeting time is and how it's always on our minds.

If you've ever wondered how his unique timepiece got as far as the Moon, this history lesson will fill in the details.

Omega Speedmaster Timeline

This history of the Speedmaster line starts at the beginning and moves into the much advertised current year celebration of the watch.

Vintage watches have a value connected to their quality, craftsmanship, and appealing aesthetics. No other timepieces interweave with history quite the way the Omega Speedmaster does.

From Conception

Omega wasn't new to fame when it released the first Speedmasters in 1957. The company was already renowned for being the official timepiece used in the World Olympic Games.

They also knew something about clever marketing. Their professional line of watches did well with their naming schemes. The Speedmaster was offered to racing enthusiasts and sportsmen, the Seamaster for divers and sailors, and the Railmaster for engineers.

No confusion for the public what the pieces were designed to do.

The 1957 Speedmaster model, CK 2915, started the line with most of the features that would carry through. The tachymeter bezel was in place, though made of simple steel in the first runs.

Also present were the straight lugs, triple-register layout for the chronograph, and the domed crystal face.

While these features were new to the Speedmaster and other Master lines, the movement was time-tested. The watch featured a changeup to the Calibre 321 movement that had been in use since 1942.

The 1946 updates included the same lateral clutch and column wheel but brought in enhanced protection to shocks and magnetic fields.

The original design was touched up for the 1959 released CK 2998. Most importantly here, the case diameters went up to 40mm from the previous 39mm standard. Water-resistant O-rings were attached to the buttons.

The final major changes came in 1963 with the ST 105.012 reference. The simpler baton hands were stylistic while the expanded 42 mm case gave needed protection to the pushers and crown.

Advent of the Moonwatch

NASA began testing for chronometers in 1962. It was important to the programme that astronauts had reliable timepieces for any possible need in difficult conditions.

The testing lasted until March 1, 1965. Original testing started with chronographs from a variety of manufacturers and brands. The likes of Rolex and Longines fell to the wayside as the testing difficulty increased.

The 11 testing protocols NASA used included wide variations in heat for prolonged periods, pressure differentials, high oxygen atmospheres, and different types of shocks.

Only three watches reached this intense set of tests. Only one watch passed.

The announcement was made and starting with Gemini III, all astronauts were issued an Omega Speedmaster.

The watchbands were not used, replaced with long Velcro straps that could be quickly adjusted and worn around the bulk of a spacesuit without problems.

Omega capitalised on this by issuing the 145.012 reference which featured "Professional" under the product identifier. This was the model seen in 1965 magazine advertisements.

This model would be the first, and only timepiece to arrive on the moon.

The Moonwatch, a moniker inviting dreams and prestige, was born.

Mission-Critical

Famously, two Speedmasters were used as mission-critical chronographs. The first was Neil Armstrong's.

After landing in the Lunar Module, it was found that the electronic timing system had not survived touchdown in-tact. Armstrong's Speedmaster was left in the Lunar Module while he took the first steps on the surface.

This made Buzz Aldrin's watch the first to step out onto the lunar surface. It can be seen in an iconic photo with Earth dramatically framed behind him.

The second mission-critical use was on the Apollo 13 mission. The crew retreated to their own Lunar Module to converse heat and oxygen.

Jack Swigert needed to make a 14-second boost to angle the craft for atmospheric re-entry. A Speedmaster was used for this.

Swigert also had a Rolex GMT Master on the mission, but official reports indicate it was not used for this crucial purpose.

Post-Apollo

Multiple models have emerged since the Apollo missions. Of note, the BA145.022, made of 18K yellow gold and a bezel in burgundy, was issued in a run of 1,014.

The first two were presented to the US President and Vice President, Nixon and Agnew. They were returned, as gift policies are strict for pollical officials. The next 25 went to astronauts with various NASA programs.

The majority were sold to the public without a specific engraved number unlike the first 32.

Aldrin's Moonwatch has a storied history of its own. The watch was supposed to be sent to the Smithsonian for display. After being shipped by Aldrin himself, the watch disappeared.

Many times people have come forward with what is claimed to be the missing Speedmaster, only to turn out to be hoaxes.

An Anniversary

Currently, a 50th-anniversary edition of the BA145.022 model is being issued. The 310.60.42.50.99.001 feature 18K gold in addition to the burgundy bezel. The motion is now powered by the Master Chronometer Calibre 3861.

Another edition in 18K Moonshine gold exists with changes to the bezel and Cergagold tachymeter.

A Watched Clock

The fervour over the Omega Speedmaster and its legacy are well deserved. Getting a hold of these rare 1969 and before pieces is a thrill for collectors and enthusiasts.

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