EVOLUTION OF THE OMEGA SPEEDMASTER

3,000 tonnes of Saturn 5 rocket, consuming fuel at 15 tonnes per second, travelling 240,000 miles away from Earth, at a cost equivalent today of £25 billion, is perhaps one of the most ludicrous ideas to ever dawn upon mankind. But as is well documented (and sometimes disputed) that is exactly what happened in 1969. And then it happened again, and several more times too. This is the quest for Earth’s nearest neighbour, it’s only natural satellite, the bleak but beautiful Luna.

The decision to pursue the Moon was announced in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, four years after the fourth Apollo 11 crewmember was born—the Omega Speedmaster. Between then and its first official NASA mission into space on board Gemini 3 in 1965 (it had already flown unofficially during Project Mercury), the Speedmaster suffered a raft of gruelling tests at the hands of NASA’s cruellest product evaluators. The testing was extensive beyond belief – ridiculous even—but nevertheless the Speedmaster passed. Amongst the worst punishment it received was 48 hours at 71°C followed by half an hour at 93°C, and then four hours at -18°C; six shocks in different directions at 40 Gs each; vibration in three cycles of thirty minutes at 2,000 cycles per second with each cycle imparting at least 8.8 Gs; and 130 db (the volume of a jet take-off) over a frequency range of 40 to 10,000 Hz for thirty minutes.

At NASA’s request, the handset was changed for high-contrast baton hands so as not to obscure the chronograph and crown guards were added to prevent knocking the crown. The applied ‘O’ logo was replaced for a painted one, and the ‘Professional’ script was added to the dial. The Speedmaster was now the only watch flight qualified by NASA for all manned space missions.

Before project Apollo could begin, NASA had to determine whether or not certain aspects of the mission to the Moon were actually feasible, so Gemini acted as the dress rehearsal for the main event, trialling techniques that focussed mainly around vehicle rendezvous and docking. In less than two years ten Gemini missions were performed, including the first American extra-vehicular activity (spacewalk) undertaken by Ed White, accompanied by his Omega Speedmaster.

The Apollo program that followed was the first time humans had ever ventured beyond low Earth orbit, and the twelve astronauts that walked the Moon between Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 are the only men to have ever set foot on a celestial body. The Speedmaster accompanied many of these men on their journeys, although it didn’t quite make it onto the wrist of Neil Armstrong as he took his—and mankind’s—first steps on the Moon. The story goes that he left it on board the Lunar Module after its on-board electronic timer broke down, and so the job was left to Buzz Aldrin to give the Omega the title of ‘first watch worn on the Moon.’

Following Apollo and the quest for distance, NASA then experimented with duration. The United States’ first space station, Skylab, was sent into space in 1973 and was home for the astronauts of all three Skylab missions for a total of 171 days. The three missions were long, each longer than the last, with the final mission taking 84 days (although the current record far surpasses that at 437 days). The occupants wore their NASA issue Speedmasters during this highly experimental era.

Over half a century after it first came to be, the Omega Speedmaster had its first real makeover in the form of the Speedmaster Co-Axial Chronograph. The Professional 3570.50.00 remained alongside this new recruit, presumably to teach it a thing or two about being a real, hard-working watch. As is to be expected, the Speedmaster Co-Axial Chronograph is bigger both in diameter and in thickness (44mm vs 42mm; 16mm vs 13mm) in order to fit the Co-Axial calibre 9300, but overall the same elegant case shape remains untouched. The most obvious change comes courtesy of the calibre 9300’s layout, namely its twin-dial chronograph register. Running seconds remain at nine o’clock, but the hour and minute chronograph hands have been merged into one sub-dial, a change consistent with other Co-Axial Omega chronographs.

The hand-wound, Lemania-based chronograph movement that has graced the Speedmaster Professional in it’s 321, 861 and 1861 forms has (when paired with a sapphire case back) been an absolute pleasure to look at, and comparatively, the 9300 has lost some of the three-dimensionality only achievable with hand-wound complication movements. That said, the finishing is exquisite—as it is across the whole watch—particularly with the sunburst array of Geneva waves.

The Speedmaster Co-Axial Chronograph will never be able to hold a candle to its legendary ancestor, but that’s not what it’s about. It doesn’t pretend to be the new Professional—Omega has left that particular word off the dial in fact—and it doesn’t have to because it isn’t; it’s a new Speedmaster, and that is something it does very well.