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A brief survey of wristwatches in space

by Peter Chong on July 5, 2019
Watches

Of course, the most famous of the wristwatches in space is the Omega Speedmaster. And inspired by our recent attendance at the SpeedyTuesday Singapore event, where NASA engineer James Ragan was one of the key presenters, we take a quick, and perhaps somewhat random look at other watches which have been used in space.

Jim Ragan, retired NASA engineer and Petros Protopapas, Head of Brand Heritage at Omega. Photograph taken at the SpeedyTuesday event in Singapore.

This list is by no means complete in any way, just a whimsical collection of wristwatches used in space which the peaks the author’s interest.

Shturmanskie

We start perhaps in as near chronological order as we possibly can. From man’s first flight to space on on April 12th 1961 – Yuri Gagarin‘s Shturmanskie (Navigator’s). After the successful mission, the Soviet government changed the name of the brand to “Poljot” meaning “Flight”.

Yuri Gagarin, seen here in a 1961 photograph with Cuba revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

Our collective Google-fu is not good enough to find any other photographs of Gagarin and the Shturmanskie. We are unable to identify the watch in the photograph above. Might it be a Shturmanskie?

Heuer Ref 2915-A

The first Swiss made watch in space was worn by John Glenn on 20 February 1962 on board Friendship 8. John wore a Heuer stopwatch, Reference 2915-A. The stopwatch is attached to the wrist strap by a cloth bezel.

John Glenn’s Heuer 2951-A with modified wrist strap to allow him to wear it on his wrist. The Heuer stopwatch is currently owned by the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, located in Washington, D. C. Since at least September 2005, the stopwatch has been on display at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. The photograph above shows the stopwatch, as it is currently being displayed in San Diego.

NASA caption: “View of Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., Dr. William Douglas, Astronauts Flight Surgeon, and equipment specialist Joe Schmitt leaving crew quarters prior to Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) mission. Glenn is in his pressure suit and is carrying the portable ventilation unit.” Date photograph taken — 1962 February 20.
Seen on Glenn’s ritht forearm is the Heuer.

Breitling Navitimer

On May 1962, Scott Carpenter wore his Breitling Navitimer on the Aurora 7 Mission, and was the first known Swiss made wristwatch in space.

A Breiling Navitimer of the same era as the one worn by Scott Carpenter.

The Breitling Navitimer was also the first watch used in space with a 24 hour display. This is a useful feature as the astronaut’s day was not bound by rising and setting of the sun, but by his work and sleep patterns.

On his splashdown re-entry, Carpenter dipped his wrist into the ocean, and the Navitimer which had no water resistant rating suffered water egress. The watch was returned to Breitling for repairs, but instead of repairing the watch, Breitling presented Carpenter with a new Navitimer, which the latter received gladly. The whereabouts of the original Navitimer is unknown. The photograph we show above was taken in Shanghai on January 2018, and is the property of Fred Mandelbaum (@watchfred).

Scott Carpenter was also known for his association with Rolex, and his involvement not only in Skylab, but also Sealab and the development of the Rolex Sea Dweller.

Strela Chronograph

In 1965 Soviet Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov left the safety of his Voskhod 2 to be the first man to perform a walk in space. He had a Strela (Russian for Arrow) chronograph on his wrist.

His walk in space was originally to have taken place on the Voskhod 1 mission, but this was cancelled, and the historic event happened on the Voskhod 2 flight instead. He was outside the spacecraft for 12 minutes and nine seconds and was connected to the craft by a 5.35-m tether. The walk was not without incident, as his suit malfunctioned, and nearly prevented him from returning to the craft. But his Strela continued to function properly, and a great testament to the engineering.

The Strela Chronograph of the same vintage as the one Leonov wore on his first space walk.

The Caliber 3017 Strela, standard issue for all Soviet Air Force pilots and cosmonauts from 1959 until its eventual phasing out in 1979, was a rugged, reliable piece of hardware with a densely-packed, but still attractive dial setup.

Alexei Leonov seen here with his Omega C.911 Flightmaster.

Leonov later led the joint space flight project between the US and USSR, when on July 18, 1975, Apollo 18 docked with Soyuz 19. The crew of both space crafts opened their latches and the two commanders Tomas Stafford (NASA) and Leonov exchanged a firm handshake. Stafford wore a standard issue Omega Speedmaster and Leonov the Omega Flightmaster.

Seiko 6139

Mission Pilot William R. Pogue wore a Seiko 6139 during this eighty-four day mission between November 16, 1973, and February 8, 1974, traveling around the Earth 1214 times for a total of thirty-four million miles. The Seiko 6139 was in space for a total of 84 days!

Interestingly though Pogue wore the regulation approved Omega Speedmaster on his right wrist, he wore his own unauthorized Seiko on his left wrist.

The Seiko 6139 worn by Pogue was possibly the first automatic chronograph in space. The 6139 was introduced in 1969. And a legitimate claim by Seiko to the first automatic chronograph wristwatch, alongside the Zenith El Primero and the consortium built Caliber 11.

The Seiko 6139 owned by Pogue was auctioned by Heritage Auctions in 2008 for $5,975. He bought the watch privately in 1972 for $71.

The operation of the chronograph is rather interesting and perhaps worth a mention. The crown is set flush against the case. In this position, it can be used to operate the rotating inner bezel. It pulls out for time setting, but also pushes in by a spring loaded mechanism. One push allows the crown to change the day, and two pushes the date.

Sinn 140/141/142

Next is Reinhard Furrer, a German astronaut who was Payload Specialist on board the the German funded Skylab D1 mission in September 1985. He wore a Sinn 140, or a 141 or 142. Sources are quite undecided as to exactly which watch he wore as he had earlier purchased the watch privately. He then submitted photographs to Lothar Schmidt of Sinn for his publicity use after returning from the mission. He had bought it to wear on his mission to show that an automatic watch was able to operate under zero gravity situations. We do note that the Seiko 6139 worn by Wiliam Pogue on Skylab 4 mission in 1973 to 19744.

The Sinn 140 used was in a black PVD case, and used a variant of the Lemania 5100 movement with GMT. The current Sinn catalog still lists a 140 in black tagiment coating, with a SZ01 movement which is a derivation of the Valjoux 7750.

Furrer’s black Sinn 140.

Sinn 140/142s were also worn on Space Station Mir in 1992, and during Spacelab D2 aboard the Colombia in 1993.

Rolex GMT-Master

And finally we touch on the contentious story of the Rolex GMT-Master. Such is the rivalry between Rolex and Omega, that the latter often denies that any Rolex was officially in the NASA space program. Indeed this was true, as NASA had only qualified the Omega Speedmasters for their flights as official equipment.

An early Rolex GMT-Master similar to the ones worn by astronauts. The Pepsi bezel is made from bakelite.

But NASA allowed their astronauts to carry a small payload on board known as the Astronaut Personal Kit. This was a small box of personal items, a popular item being photographs of their family, on board their missions. Some astronauts chose to bring their own watches, and as many of them were test pilots, they brought the Rolex GMT-Master.

Even the timing of the critical 14 seconds for the retro rockets to fire was contentious. Official records stated that Commander John Swigert used his Speedmaster to do the timing, but in James Dowling and Jeff Hess’s book The Best of Time Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History, the authors argued that Swigert used his Rolex GMT-Master. NASA records do recognize that Swigert had worn a Rolex on Apollo 13, but did not confirm that he used it to time the 14 seconds. We make no attempt to decide which record is correct.

Omega Speedmaster Professional

And finally the Omega Speedmaster Professional. We leave you with a photograph of the last watch on the lunar surface, worn by Gene Cernan.

Eugene Cernan’s actual watch,as worn by the Eugene Cernan on his 3 spacewalks on Apollo 17. The watch is currently in the Omega Museum in Biel. I photographed this watch in Jan 2017.
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