NASA certified watches
Time In Space: Without Our Watches We Would Be Lost
Most don’t realize the connection between time keeping and navigation. Until a clock that remained accurate at sea could be developed, mariners could only guess at their longitude. Today, precise GPS positioning would be impossible without use of atomic clocks aboard satellites. Time keeping, piloting and navigation have always gone together. So, when astronauts began to climb aboard spacecraft, there were lots of clocks on board and on the astronauts’ wrists.
When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, he wore a mechanical Sturmanskije watch just like this one. (Sturmanskije translates roughly to “navigator” in English.) It wasn’t a special watch exactingly chosen by the Soviet space agency as a space-worthy timepiece. It was Gagarin’s own, one he was issued after graduating from the prestigious Orenburg Flight School in 1957 after two years of training. In the 1950s, it was typical for graduates of flight school to receive a watch.
The standard Sturmanskije in 1957 was a 15-jewel manual-wind watch with a 38 millimeter face, though it’s possible Gagarin would have upgraded his to the 17-jewel edition by the time of his flight aboard Vostok 1.
Did You Know?
In keeping with the Soviet industrial style of the era, the Sturmanskije was an extremely basic and functional watch. It had a plain face and lacked frills like a date keeper. It worked but was hardly a status symbol. As the cold war thawed and Soviet-American relations improved, US astronauts offered as gifts the coveted and far more stylish Omega Speedmaster (also displayed here) and the cosmonauts delightedly wore them on the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
Museum Exhibit: Breitling Navitimer
Scott Carpenter was the second US astronaut to orbit the earth. In the early 1950’s, Breitling and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) entered into a co-marketing agreement to create and promote the Navitimer, a wristwatch that became very popular with pilots of the era. Carpenter had received one as a gift and liked it. As one of the original Mercury astronauts, he contacted Breitling in 1959 and — since there’s no “mid-day” in space — suggested they make a 24-hour version. Breitling obliged, producing a manual-wind version with a circular slide rule around the face to aid pilots in flight. Breitling sent one of these specially designed Navitimers to Carpenter just days before the launch of his Aurora 7 orbital mission on May 24, 1962.
Carpenter’s notoriety and the fact that this was the first watch in space worn by an American gave Breitling an excellent advertising opportunity; print ads in magazines like Life and Newsweek featured the timepiece next to a real life space man.
Unfortunately, Breitling had made a huge marketing mistake. They had labeled this special 24-hour variant of their Navitimer the Cosmonaute. This was the French word for astronaut but — spelled slightly differently — was also the Soviet word for their spacemen. During the time of the space race and international missile crisis, this gaffe spelled disaster for US sales.
About This Watch
The Navitimer Cosmonaute displayed here is very rare. It’s of the proper vintage and has the same mechanical movement, case design and face markings as the watch worn by Carpenter. Due to the Cosmonaute naming debacle, very few were produced like this at the time, though the 24 hour Navitimer is still manufactured by Breitling today (and, in a retro throwback, is once again labeled Cosmonaute).
Museum Exhibit: Omega Speedmaster
As the watch that accompanied NASA astronauts on their Apollo lunar missions and to the moon, the Omega Speedmaster is the most famous in this collection. But the Speedmaster got its start in space through a mundane path. In the fall of 1962, a group of astronauts went shopping for watches in Houston. Among them was Wally Schirra who bought a Speedmaster. He wore the watch on his Sigma 7 Mercury flight on October 3 of that year.
In 1964, the astronauts approached NASA requesting a watch they could reliably wear in training and on missions. Concerned that an automatic watch, energized as a side effect of wrist movement, wouldn’t be able to wind itself or keep time in a microgravity environment, the agency started testing various timepieces from Rolex, Longines, and Omega. “Testing” meant trying to destroy them as thoroughly as possible. The watches were subjected to temperatures hotter than 200 degrees fahrenheit then immediately frozen, battered in impacts generating up to 40gs, exposed to high pressure, low pressure, and humid environments, shaken, vibrated, and a placed in a highly corrosive one-hundred percent oxygen environment just like the astronauts would have on lunar missions. In the end, the watch with the highest score was the Speedmaster. Today, it remains as only one of four watches officially certified by NASA for spaceflight and the only one certified for use on spacewalks.
Its first official flight came in 1965 strapped to the wrists of Gemini 3’s Gus Grissom and John Young. The watch was also used on Apollo 11 for the first moon landing and was worn on the surface by Buzz Aldrin. It proved its worth on Apollo 13. When the crew — with their guidance computer shut down — needed to execute precision burns of their engine to adjust trajectory on their way back to Earth, they relied on Speedmasters for exact timing. This watch is still marketed as the “Moon Watch”.
In 1957, the Navy asked Bulova to design a time-keeper for its Vanguard satellite, and when it finally reached orbit it carried the first Accutron panel mount timekeeper in space. Bulova Accutrons went on to become the official time keeper for the Vanguard, Tiros, Explorer, Relay, Syncom, Pegasus, and Telstar programs, and it was the official watch of the X-15 program, the first winged vehicle to make it to the edge of space. It also became the first American made watch in space when Gordon Cooper wore one on the right side (and a Speedmaster on the left) during the last Mercury mission. While in the end NASA formally issued Omega Speedmasters to Apollo program astronauts, the panel clocks in the Lunar Module and Command Module used Accutrons.