‘The technical environment of space exploration not only pushes scientific knowledge, but also triggers the watchmaking world to develop increasingly functional timepieces, fit to withstand the challenging conditions of outer space.‘
High-performance watchmaking and space exploration are inextricably linked. Built for maximum endurance and precision, astronaut watches continue to serve as reliable companions to man’s adventures across the earth’s atmosphere.
The Space Race
The history of watches and space exploration begins during the Cold War space race between the Soviet and US space programmes, in the 1960s. High-end watchmakers found themselves challenged to outrun other competitors. Employing science and technology, numerous brands worked towards producing the most durable and functional timepieces. These watches were intended to not only accompany early space explorers but also catapult the watchmakers’ labels into stellar fame.
The First Watch to Leave Earth
The horological road to space was paved with the watch strapped to the wrist of Yuri Gagarin as he crossed the earth’s atmosphere for the very first time on the 12th of April 1961. Although there is some disagreement over the exact model worn by Gagarin, it is most likely a watch by Sturmanskie. This was an exclusive Soviet watch brand launched in 1949, specifically with space exploration in mind. Gagarin and his fellow pilots were issued with a Sturmanskie after graduating from the Chkalov Air Force Pilot School. Thus, it is highly likely that it was the watch worn by the Soviet astronaut. Yet, we may only speculate on this matter, as Gagarin died tragically in a plane crash in 1968.
The First Watch to Leave the Space Capsule
On 18 March 1965, Alexey Leonov became the first to conduct extravehicular activity (EVA). He exited the space capsule during the Voskhod 2 mission for a 12-minute spacewalk. The watch he then wore was a white-dialled mechanical Russian chronograph from Strela. Strapped to Leonov’s wrist, Strela thus became the first watch worn outside a spaceship. Since the 1950s, the company had become the standard cosmonaut timepiece supplier, equipping Russian space explorers until 1979. The brand exists to this day, but has relocated its base to Munich, Germany.
NASA and Breitling
In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Americans entered a collaboration with the Swiss watchmaking brand, Breitling. In 1959, Scott Carpenter was one of the astronauts chosen by Nasa for Project Mercury along with John Glenn. In preparation for the mission, Carpenter contacted Breitling with a request for an extra functional timepiece made specifically for his space project. In response, the company made an advanced 24 hour Navitimer model, which he took with him into space. Unfortunately, the watch was not waterproof, and it was damaged by seawater when Carpenter splashed down into the Atlantic.
NASA and Heuer
The subsequent watch produced by the Swiss for the US space programme was a unique Heuer stopwatch worn by John Glenn aboard of the Friendship 7 mission. The mission marked a significant milestone, making Glenn the first American to orbit the planet on February 20th 1962. As he made three historic orbits around the world, the Heuer 2915A stopwatch remained strapped to the outside of his spacesuit. The timepiece features an easy-to-read layout with 12-hour and 60-minute subdials. Its large onion crown was carefully devised to allow easy winding, and a single pusher controls the chronograph functions.
On 21 July 1969, Omega made history with its Speedmaster model. It was worn by Buzz Aldrin as he became the second man to step on the surface of the moon. Prior to becoming the official timepiece of the Apollo 11 mission, the Speedmaster was tested by NASA along with many other watches. The rigorous tests consisted of placing the watches through vacuum chambers, exposing them to sudden speed acceleration and stopping, as well as putting them through extreme temperatures. Following the tests, the Speedmaster was the only watch to withstand all the conditions. As a result, the ‘Moonwatch’ went on all 6 lunar missions, becoming one of the most iconic watches of all time. Moreover, in 1970, the Speedmaster played a significant role aboard of the disastrous Apollo 13 mission. It proved indispensable in helping the crew to time a critical engine burn that allowed them to cross through the atmosphere and return home safely.
TAG Heuer’s Continued Work with Space Exploration
In recent years, TAG Heuer has sought to restore its association with space exploration by introducing the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 1887 SpaceX Chronograph. This took place in celebration of the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s first orbit. The new chronometer is stylistically reminiscent of Glenn’s Heuer stopwatch, serving as an apt reminder of the brand’s important contribution in the space race. In 2012, TAG Heuer became involved with Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme. This allowed the brand to once again make a presence in space by travelling aboard the SpaceX’s Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station on 25 May 2012.
The technical environment of space exploration not only pushes scientific knowledge, but also triggers the watchmaking world to develop increasingly functional timepieces, fit to withstand the challenging conditions of outer space. Unsurprisingly, watch enthusiasts aspire to own genuine ‘astronaut watches’ not only for their ruggedness but also for their remarkably high quality.