No watch can compete with the story of the Moonwatch. Period. And you can be sure that Omega will be pulling out all the stops and rolling out the red carpet to celebrate the golden anniversary of the Speedmaster’s Moon landing.

On 16th July 1969, the Apollo 11 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and four days later, on the 20th of July at 20:17:40 UTC, reached the Moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle lunar module on the surface of the Moon, while Michael Collins remained in orbit in the command module.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLA. — The Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle lifts off with Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. at 9:32 a.m. EDT July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.

Glued to their televisions, 600 million viewers on Earth watched Armstrong descend the ladder of the lunar module and heard him utter the words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  It was an epic moment in space exploration and an equally epic moment for a watch company in Switzerland: when Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface about 20 minutes later he was wearing his official issue Speedmaster 105.012 strapped over his bulky moon suit.

Buzz touches down the Moon surface, strapped over his suit was a 105.012 Speedmaster, later named the “Moonwatch”

How the Speedmaster landed on the Moon

Responsible for testing and equipping hardware for the mission, NASA’s Project Engineer James H. Ragan was the man who landed the Speedmaster on the Moon. This was not, however, the Speedmaster’s first voyage in space. In1962, during the Mercury program orbital flight, astronaut Walter Schirra wore a CK2998 Speedmaster on board the Sigma 7, but it was his personal watch. Two years later, following a petition by astronauts for a backup timing device on their missions, Flight Crew Operations Director, Deke Slayton, requested “a highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews”.

Ragan was assigned to choose a suitable watch for the upcoming space missions and subjected the selected candidates to 11 punishing tests. In his own words: “Everybody wore a wristwatch back then. But the astronauts wanted a chronograph to wear so that they could do their own timing. The watch was a critical backup. If the astronauts lost the capability of talking to the ground, or the capability of their digital timers on the lunar surface, the only thing they had to rely on would be the watches they had on. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.”

Among the watches Ragan selected was an Omega Speedmaster. Launched by Omega in 1957, the Speedmaster was the first chronograph to display a tachymeter scale on the bezel. Designed to measure elapsed times and speed with chronograph and tachymeter functions, the Speedmaster was one of three professional watches launched by the Swiss brand – along with the Seamaster and the Railmaster – offering a high-precision, water-resistant watch that was easy to read and use. You can read all about the evolution of the Speedmaster over the years in Brice’s comprehensive article, complete with a timeline and videos.

The NASA trials, designed to “test the watches to destruction”, included extreme temperature oscillations (from 93ºC to -18ºC), violent shocks, high and low pressure, humidity, noise, vibrations, a corrosive oxygen environment etc. The only watch to survive the torture was the Speedmaster. As a result, the Speedmaster was declared “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on the 1st of March 1965 and made its first official trip into space on 23 March 1965 on the wrists of Virgil Grissom and John Young during the Gemini III mission.  Because of the thickly padded space suits, the steel bracelet of the Speedmaster was exchanged for a long Velcro strap coiled twice around the wrist for safety.

Return to Earth

After 20 hours on the Moon’s surface and 21.55 kilos of lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off in the Eagle to rejoin their companion Collins in the Columbia. A successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on the 24th of July marked the end of the Apollo 11 mission. The Speedmaster, however, had not finished its duties and was deployed on all future lunar landings including Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17.

The legend continues

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing and the Speedmaster’s debut on the lunar surface. To celebrate this golden anniversary, Omega revisits a specific model made in 1969 to celebrate the Apollo 11 landing. It was the brand’s first numbered edition Speedmaster and only 1,014 pieces were produced between 1969 and 1973. Made in solid yellow gold with a burgundy bezel, numbers 3-28 and 1001-1008 were given as gifts to NASA’s serving astronauts. The 50th Anniversary Apollo 11 watch is a re-edition of the original model but is decked out with a new-generation hand-wound chronograph movement, calibre Omega 3861 and flaunts Master Chronometer and COSC status.

Where were you on July 20, 1969?

I remember the Moon landing clearly, but for all the wrong reasons. Woken from our slumber, my sister and I were placed in front of a black and white TV in our living room in London to watch fuzzy images of a man bouncing around on the Moon. Hardly our idea of entertainment, we clamoured for our favourite programme the Magic Roundabout and were sent back to bed.  Are any of you old enough to remember the event? Please share your memories with us in the comment box below.


This post first appeared on Monochrome Watches - An online magazine dedicated to fine watches.