Far and away the most tested watches in the world, Omega’s Speedmasters have remained miles beyond
(and, quite often, above) the competition
It’s hard to make a good spinoff.
Take Baywatch Nights, the offshoot of the ’90s beach drama that bombarded audiences with bodacious, buxom bods (and, with 1.1 billion viewers worldwide — surely transfixed by the engrossing storylines — once the number-one show in the world). Curiously, Nights subtracted the babes and transplanted the Hoff into a detective agency. When the show’s already-low ratings started to flag in the second season, the producers tossed in future Baywatch (Days) star Donna D’Errico and rearranged the series around a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque plot replete with werewolves and vampires (with Hasselhoff behind the stake). Canceled after two utterly forgettable seasons, the show was an unmitigated disaster. Many other spinoffs — film and commercial — have come to similar (predictable) fates. You can draw your own conclusions on the contributions of New Coke and the “W” Bush years.
Some spinoff ideas seem doomed to insignificance from the get-go, the interest that the original version enflamed doused by the diluted, unfamiliar by-products. But when one manufacture routinely spins gold, creating astounding innovations with which to start weaving one of these offshoots, the synthesis can lead to amazing results. It’s not rocket science.
Well actually, in this case, it is. The spin-off seeds that have famously sprouted from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) tree of knowledge have been groundbreaking, revolutionary, lifesaving, and qualify for a wealth of other superlatives that would induce carpal tunnel syndrome to type out. Among the golden geese either designed by NASA’s alchemists or hatched from its original ideas and products are memory foam (created to improve crash protection and now used in pillows, mattresses and safety equipment), freeze-drying technology for food preservation, Dustbuster vacuums, smoke detectors, a drive-enhancing metal alloy used in golf clubs, cochlear implants for the hard of hearing (designed by Adam Kissiah, a NASA engineer with no medical training and a hearing problem of his own), the nutritionally enhanced superfoods now populating the baby-food aisle, and wastewater-purification and solar-energy technologies. (Contrary to popular belief, NASA didn’t invent Velcro, Teflon or quartz clocks; the latter should go without saying.) Among the most recent and visible NASA-developed technologies are Speedo’s skintight LZR Racer swimsuits, in which the world’s elite swimmers have shattered records since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. (Doubtless, a variation will carve the lanes and record books in London later this year.) Most notable among its wearers is Michael Phelps: one of the most decorated Olympians in history (with a record 14 Olympic gold medals), Aquaman’s alter ego, and a brand ambassador for Omega watches since 2004, touting the celebrated Seamaster. If ever there were a consummate product-ambassador association, that’s it.
As a mecca for ingenuity, innovation, and everything high-performance and space-age, there is little that is beyond NASA’s comprehension or capability. But when NASA has needed to incorporate outsider technology into its missions, it has held the devices to its usual, exponentially high standards. And such was the position that NASA found itself in during the early ’60s, when, in preparation for the famous Apollo missions, it needed a standard-issue timepiece that met its astronomical standards of quality and endurance. NASA needed the best, and the stars were aligned for the Omega Speedmaster.
Originally produced in 1957, the Speedmaster’s cosmic story began years later, in the midst of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1961, four months after he took office, in the spirit of good old-fashioned American one-upmanship, President John F. Kennedy stated his goal for America to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. It would be a difficult, expensive and generation-defining journey, and would require the very best engineers, astronauts and equipment.
In September of 1964, in search of a timing device worthy of the task, NASA officials ordered two Speedmasters (which retailed at US$82.50 each) and pairs of five other chronographs for testing and evaluation. Over the following months, scientists put the 12 watches through qualification procedures which, in many ways, were more rigorous than the tests the astronauts underwent themselves. With NASA’s reputation for cutting-edge, ground-shaking innovation, it was imperative that the timing instruments used in its most important missions to date be equally good.
In a way, Omega had a leg up on the competition. Wally Schirra, the only person to have taken part in each of NASA’s first three space expeditions (Apollo, Gemini and Mercury), and a man who logged nearly two weeks in space over his career, made the Speedmaster the original interstellar timepiece of choice when he blasted off for a solo Mercury mission on 3 October 1962. The Speedmaster had been “up” before, but the missions ahead would be somewhat different. Preparations were underway for the astronauts to conduct space walks, or controlled excursions outside of the spacecraft, where they (and their watches) would be exposed to unfiltered solar rays. Temperatures on the lunar surface would fluctuate anywhere from 120°C to -160°C — well above and well below the boiling and freezing points of water. Needless to say, the last watch standing after the performance trials would have to be the real deal.
The first round of chronograph testing was based on relatively straightforward performance evaluations under expected conditions. Those whose accuracy strayed were eliminated. Six brands’ chronographs entered round one; three brands emerged. The secondary tests were brutal — torture tests, really, fit for the script of a horologically inclined Saw film. (We thought we were doling out some harsh punishment hammering
faux-lexes during our recent Reservoir Dogs ear-scene-esque counterfeit-watch smackdown photo shoot. This stuff was hardcore.) Some of the gauntlet’s highlights included exposure to severe humidity, shocks of 40Gs, and temperatures that were extremely high (48 hours at 160°F/71°C, followed by 30 minutes at 200°F/93°C) or low (four hours at 0°F/-18°C).
Needless to say, the battery of tests was the most rigorous in horological history. In the end, one of the three finalists succumbed in the heat-resistance trials, its large seconds hand warping and knocking into the others. A second brand faltered in the heat and decompression trials.
The conclusion? NASA’s testers noted: “As a result of the test, Omega chronographs have been calibrated and issued to three members of the GT-3 [Gemini-Titan III] crews”. And after surviving the gauntlet, the Speedmaster was well received. The testing officials explained, “the astronauts show a unanimous preference for the Omega chronograph over the other two brands because of better accuracy, reliability, readability and ease of operation”. And so it was that in 1965, the Speedmaster was flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions.
But that was just the beginning of the Speedmaster’s long bender of high-performance, adrenaline-fueled conquests. On 19 April 1968, after traveling 1,320km (820miles) over 44 days, a team led by American Ralph S. Plaisted, using a Speedmaster to help calculate its position, completed the first confirmed trek to latitude 90° north, the exact geographic location of the North Pole. The Speedmasters were checked daily by radio, never varying by more than a second, even as temperatures shifted from -52°C to -26°C. Later, on 21 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin’s Speedmaster Professional became the first watch on the moon; Neil Armstrong had left his in the Lunar Module as a backup for the malfunctioning onboard timekeeping system (leave it to the pros, NASA). And in April of the following year, a Speedmaster helped rescue the crew of the Apollo 13 mission, earning Omega a Silver Snoopy, the highest distinction awarded to NASA astronauts. The crew used it to time rocket burns and adjust their trajectory when maneuvering their crippled spacecraft back to earth. The watch even transcended the era’s political barriers, eventually becoming the timepiece of choice for Russia’s cosmonauts.
Overall, thanks to NASA’s priceless confidence, Omegas have been Velcro-strapped on the wrists of the men and women on every manned space flight since 1963. And here’s the kicker: Omega only learned about the Speedmaster’s cosmic tale after seeing a photograph taken during the Gemini IV mission in 1965, America’s first spacewalk. It was a vote of confidence unsolicited and from the highest source. But with the Speedmaster, it should have almost been expected.
The 2012 additions to the Speedmaster line are spinoffs of the collection’s astronomical storyline. But they’re also outstanding works of horological art in their own right, transcending wrist adornment with a powerful tradition and supreme utility. We were lucky enough to gaze upon them ourselves at this year’s BaselWorld fair. And in terms of pure ingenuity, the 2012 Speedmasters bring more of the same. Trusted by the best then and still exceptional now, the conversation on excellent performance starts and ends with the Speedmaster.