Omega Speedmaster (Legendary Watches)

Legendary Watches: The Omega Speedmaster

by Matthew Boston
Brand History, Omega

Early Omega Speedmaster

The first Omega chronograph with the name “Speedmaster” appeared in 1957, its name originated from the model’s unique tachymeter scale bezel (in brushed stainless steel) and by the naming convention set by prior Omega brands Seamaster and Railmaster. Omega were at this time official timekeeper for the Olympic Games and the Speedmaster was introduced as a sports and racing chronograph to complement Omega’s position.

The first Speedmaster model was reference CK 2915 and was powered by the Omega Calibre 321 which was introduced in 1942 and further developed in 1946 by adding protection to magnetic fields and shocks, something that would later prove to be very important for the NASA tests.

The CK 2915 model established the signature 12-hour, triple-register chronograph layout, with domed Plexiglas crystal and simple high-contrast index markers. This early model used Omega’s Broadarrow hand set unlike most subsequent Speedmaster models.

Vintage Omega Speedmaster (Ref. CK 2998)

Vintage Omega Speedmaster (Ref. CK 2998)

A second version CK 2998 was released In 1959, which had a black aluminum tachymeter bezel for improved legibility and alpha hands, an O-ring gasket for greater water resistance was added and the case diameter was also increased from 39 to 40mm. This was again updated in 1963 by references ST 105.003 with straight baton hands and ST 105.012 with an asymmetrical case to protect the chronograph pushers and crown.

Omega Speedmaster: Adventures in Space

As previously mentioned the Speedmaster was not originally designed for space exploration but as a sports watch, however on October 3, 1962 three years before the Speedmaster’s official qualification for space flight, astronaut Wally Schirra took his personal Speedmaster CK 2998 aboard Mercury-Atlas 8 (Sigma 7)

Omega Speedmasters of Schirra, Gordon and Stafford

Omega Speedmasters of Schirra, Gordon and Stafford

The date of March 23, 1965 marks the inaugural flight of the Omega Speedmaster Professional as the official chronograph for NASA during the Gemini 3 mission. The first American space walk wearing a Speedmaster was made by Ed White during Gemini 4, when he wore it strapped to his G4C space suit using a long nylon strap and velcro to fit it over the space suit.

Photo’s taken of these events were often used by Omega’s marketing department during the period 1965–1967, creating the image of the Speedmaster as a space watch.

Ed White wearing Omega Speedmaster in Space (1965)

Ed White wearing Omega Speedmaster in Space (1965)

So how does the Speedmaster become an official NASA space watch? James Ragan, a former NASA engineer responsible for Apollo flight hardware testing states that bids were officially solicited of several brands that were already familiar to the pilots who were joining the growing astronaut corps.

There were a number of brands under official consideration which included Breitling, Rolex, and Omega, as well as others that produced mechanical chronographs. Hamilton was disqualified from consideration after they submitted a pocket watch and this left three contenders: Rolex, Longines-Wittnauer, and Omega. These watches were all subjected to tests under extreme conditions:

  • 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 11ms 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 minimum 8.8 g impulse
  • Acoustic noise: 30 minutes at 130 dB from 40 to 10,000 Hz.

Since neither the first automatic chronograph nor the first quartz watch were available until well after the space program was underway all the chronographs tested were mechanical hand-wind models. After the evaluation was completed in March 1965 the Speedmaster, which survived the tests while remaining largely within 5 seconds per day rate was selected.

As a result of this Omega decided to add the word “Professional” to the Speedmaster making it the Omega Speedmaster Professional, it also got the 145.012 reference number.

Vintage Omega Speedmaster "Pre-moon"

Omega Speedmaster (Ref. 145.012-67)

In 1968 cal. 861 also produced by Lemania replaced the cal.321 movement. The cal. 861 was not only a more accurate movement but also cheaper to produce. This movement is still being used in the current line of Omega Speedmaster Professionals. The movement was a bit more accurate with a frequency of 21600A/h instead of 18000A/h.

Omega Speedmaster: The Moon watch

On 21 July 1969, the Omega Speedmaster Professional worn by Buzz Aldrin was the first watch to be worn on the moon. For safety, Neil Armstrong had left his Speedmaster in the lunar module as a clock-replacement. It was an Omega Speedmaster Professional with a cal. 321 movement, sadly a few months later Buzz’s watch was stolen and never returned.

Aldrin's Omega Speedmaster

Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster

The Speedmasters position as the definitive space watch was further enhanced with the next event easily recognised by the phrase: “Houston, we have a problem.” During the Apollo 13 mission (April 1970), an explosion damaged the main source of energy, forcing astronauts to turn off all electrical instruments with the exception of the radio in order to conserve the energy required for their maneuvers return to earth.

Thus the Omega Speedmaster Professional was used to time these critical rocket burns and aid in the successful return to earth. In recognition of the crucial role played by the Speedmaster Professional in the rescue of the crew of Apollo 13, NASA honored Omega with the coveted Snoopy Award.

Omega Speedmaster - Gold Edition

Omega Speedmaster – Gold Edition

Other brands have tried several times to certify their chronographs by NASA. Each time, the Omega Speedmaster Professional has surpassed all its competitors, and each time NASA has confirmed its original decision, retaining the Omega Speedmaster Professional for all of its manned missions. Selected for the first time by NASA in 1965, the Speedmaster was chosen in 1972 and 1978 for the missions of the space shuttle again.

In 1978 the Speedmaster was released with a caseback engraved with “Flight Qualified by NASA for all manned space missions – The first watch worn on the moon”. In fact since the first marketed Omega Speedmaster in 1957 Omega has produced approximately 1.8 million of them, with manual, automatic or quartz movements. There have also been more than 250 variants of the Speedmaster to have been created since the first in 1957, with a large range of movements, functions and case materials.

Omega Speedmaster - Dark Side of the Moon

Omega Speedmaster – Dark Side of the Moon

Indeed this year saw the launch of yet another variant, the Omega Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon which features a dial made from black zirconium oxide ceramic. There will doubtless be many more variations of this legendary wach to come in the future too.

More resources about the Omega Speedmaster on Wikipedia, ChronoMaddox, and Official Omega Website.

    Author Bio

    Articles by Matthew Boston


    Matthew Boston has worked in the computer graphics industry for 17 years in various parts of the world, currently residing back home in the UK. His interest in watches was first piqued as a youngster when he was fascinated by a Seiko digital watch he received. He's also founder of UniqueWatchGuide which is dedicated to sharing the news about timepieces that are unusual, unconventional and more often than not unobtainable.