The Secret Alaska Project Speedmasters & the Future of Omega's Space WatchBy Sumit Nag
When Titanium Took Flight
First, a detour. In the frigid core of the Cold War, when engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, was tasked to build the ultimate reconnaissance aircraft, he understood that he had to design a supersonic craft that could fly faster and higher than ever before, while casting the lowest possible signature on enemy radar screens.
Kelly knew from the get go that the first challenge he would face, is the sheer amount of heat such an aircraft would have to withstand in supersonic flight. A traditional aluminum bodied aircraft would turn to jello the minute it hit anything past Mach 2.6. Kelly needed his aircraft to go well past Mach 3.
This wasn’t necessarily a problem. Kelly knew that his solution was, titanium: The lightness of the material would allow the plane to fly higher than any before it and its high melting point (more than 1,650°C), meant that it could withstand the expected temperatures past Mach 3.
The problem was that titanium wasn’t exactly readily available to the US. What complicated matters more, though, is that for the amount of titanium that Kelly required, his only source lay beyond Iron Curtain, in the USSR.
But where there’s a will there is always a way and the CIA found means to gather the titanium that Kelly required. So, on the 22nd of December 1964, out rolled onto the tarmac at Lockheed’s Burbank, California facility, the dark-winged beast we know better as the SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s first aircraft made largely out of titanium. In fact, more than 90% of the SR-71 was nothing but titanium.
Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions
Switching back to the subject matter at hand, I trust you guys know the Omega Speedmaster’s journey into becoming the “Moonwatch” by heart now. So, allow me to remind you of a few little details from the document that NASA drew up, after having tested the three watches that were offered up by Omega.
NASA, in the qualification document, dated March 19, 1965, wrote saying, “The results of operational evaluations by 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.”
The document then goes further to say, “The following modifications to the Omega Chronograph were suggested to improve its usefulness as a flight article:
- Replacement of the fixed outer dial (bezel) with a rotatable dial calibrated in 24-hour increments.
- Addition of luminous markings to the elapsed time dials.”
However, pressed for time, these modifications were never implemented in the buildup to the 1969 lunar landing. Which means to say that the caliber 321 loaded in the ST105.003 and later, the ST105.012 and ST145.012, Speedmasters that NASA used all the way into the last Apollo mission in 1972, were all stock watches.
Omega, though, knew that in order for the Speedmaster to remain NASA’s choice chronograph, it had to continue to work towards improving the watch, so that it would keep up to speed with the ever-growing complexities of manned space missions.
Today, the keeper of the tale of the project that Omega pursued, as a result, is none other than Petros Protopapas, the brand’s revered Museum Director. Describing the creation of the program, Petros shared saying, “Omega at the time used several code-names to obscure important developments from the preying eyes of possible competitors and to be protected against possible industrial espionage. Complete watches, as opposed to movements only, were — if needed — codenamed using either names of countries, cities, states or regions.
“When the long-running series of secretive NASA-related prototyping started at OMEGA, the codename chosen for all various related projects was Alaska, and it was simply a codename without any connections to the American State’s low temperatures.
“The idea was to widen research and to be able to produce the most suitable watch for space exploration that was possible at any given time. As such, and certainly at the start of the long line of Alaska Projects, the research was done by OMEGA and was then passed on to Mr James H. Ragan [Former NASA Program Manager and Aerospace Engineer, responsible for having qualified the Speedmaster] as ‘unsolicited proposals’.”
1969 — The Alaska I Prototype
Under the guise of the obscurely named, Alaska Project, Omega produced their first prototype for NASA’s consideration, in 1969. This was the Alaska I Prototype.
The watch had a red, detachable anodized aluminum outer case or “thermal shield” that made for a 46mm behemoth. It had a white, “racing” type dial, treated with a layer of Zinc Oxide that was intended to better reflect heat- and sunray, while providing for great visibility. Interestingly, the dial on the Alaska I Prototype, never bore the name Speedmaster. Though, maybe that’s just because the case used in this instance was far from the classical Speedmaster case.
Again, for legibility, the chronograph hand and the minute and hour totalizer hands were colored red, with the latter two hands shaped like rockets.
Says Petros, “As for the exact numbers produced, an exact confirmation cannot be given, as some details remain sketchy at best to this day. What is confirmed though is that a first batch of four titanium-cased Alaska I chronographs was produced with three of them travelling to Houston for review.
“A slightly less complicated variation within the Alaska I project involved all of the protective methods tested and applied to the first batch, including the caliber 861, with the omission of the titanium case. Offering almost a preview of the next phase of the project, this iteration within Alaska I was encased in a regular Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch” case, thus resembling the future Alaska II iteration.”
Before moving on to the Alaska II, I had to ask Petros about the titanium cases. There is good reason why no one in the watch industry had ever use titanium to make cases prior to the Alaska I — simply because there was so little of it available.
There is, however, one theory that Omega obtained the necessary titanium from the very source where Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works gathered the immense amount of the material that was necessary to construct the SR-71 Blackbird. When asked about this Petros said, “The Omega Museum is still involved in the research [of] looking into all aspects of the amazing series of “Alaska” Projects, and while it is true that the titanium may have come from a similar batch that was used for several famous military projects on the other side of the Atlantic, we do not yet have all the details regarding the delivery of the titanium used for the Alaska prototypes.
“The list of countries that produced and were able to export titanium was quite small at the time, so it was surely not an easy task to source the metal. We do know the name of the final supplying company chosen, but as the research project is still ongoing, it would be too early to share this detail, as we do not want to spoil the fun watch-lovers and collectors alike will have when an update of the research will be published.”
1972 — The Alaska II Prototype
The second generation of watches produced as part of the Alaska Project retained the red aluminum heat shield, the Zinc Oxide coated white dials and the caliber 861, but as mentioned by Petros, took on the classic, 42mm twisted lug case of the Speedmaster, devoid of any shiny surfaces thanks to the micro-bead sandblasting that gave the watch a matte-finish.
We see the reinstatement of the Speedmaster name on the dial of the Alaska II Prototype, however, for the first time ever, we see the implementation of what is better known as the radial dial. Essentially, the radial dials have their scales on the sub dials in a radial orientation.
It’s not known for sure how many pieces were made, but it has been confirmed that the total batch was made with two bezel types: One version had the tachymeter bezel and the other had a 60-minute graduated rotating bezel. Says Petros, “We are still researching the whereabouts of all produced [Alaska II] prototypes, and at the current state we cannot give out too many details on the number of the eventually finalized prototypes. Judging by the movement numbers known to us, a figure below 15 seems like a good way to keep the fun going amongst informed collectors and Speedmaster fans!”
As rare as these are, Phillips had an instance of the watch up for auction at their November 2016 Geneva sale, where the watch sold for CHF156,250. Funny enough, I had a reader reach out to me, shortly after the sale, asking how a watch he was able to find on eBay for a few thousand, managed six-figures at auction?
The answer there was simple enough: Omega issued a limited-edition Speedmaster of 1970 pieces, in 2008, that was modeled after the Alaska II Prototype. This is what the gentleman reader had come across on eBay. What Phillips had in their catalog was nothing short of the genuine article.
The 2008 reissue had the white dial of the Alaska II prototype, though, not the radial sub dials. It did, however, have the rocket shaped hands for the chrono minute and hours totalizer. It even came with the outer anodized aluminium “thermal shield” much like the prototype. This made the watch capable of withstanding temperatures, in lunar or spatial atmospheres, ranging from -148ºC to +260ºC. The movement used for the watch was the more recent caliber 1861.
1978 — The Alaska III Prototypes
While with the Apollo 17 mission NASA marked its last flight to the moon, in 1976 yet another project was launched with the prospect of a reusable space craft. This was the Space Shuttle program. And a new program and a new craft meant that NASA had to go through the entire process of qualification for all of its equipment, including the Speedmaster.
With that in mind, Omega for its third chapter of the Alaska project decided to switch things up with three very different types of watches, all of which were sent up to NASA for the re-qualification on April 3, 1978.
The first in the lineup was a new prototype version of the ST145.022 with a 42mm steel twisted lug case, the caliber 861 and a black radial dial that had tritium hour markers; no big red aluminum heat shield any more.
Second was the Speedmaster reference 11003, which used the automatic chronograph caliber 1045.
Third — and the most radical of the lot — was the Speedsonic reference ST188.0002, which uses the tuning fork regulated electromechanical movement, the caliber 1255 — basically a version of the Dubois Depraz developed ESA9210, which appeared in such watches as the Speedmaster Speedsonic, or “Lobster”, earlier in 1974.
Petros adds to the story saying, “The “Alaska III” Project was the first and only of the various iterations that had to fulfill all legal requirements of the “Buy American Act” current at the time. All the cases related to the “Alaska III” project were produced by the Star Watch Case Company of Michigan in the USA.
So far, or research has confirmed that three “Speedsonic” reference ST 188.002 were produced and delivered for qualification testing. Of the Reference 11003, we can currently trace one delivered model, but there were certainly a few more produced as a possible backup.”
Three different watch types delivered, but no prizes for having guessed that it was still the manual winding ST145.022 that was re-qualified by NASA for the Space Shuttle program. The lack of gravity in space made the automatic reference 11003 a bit of a no-brainer. But the reason why the seemingly more progressive ST188.0002 was decided against, was that NASA was unsure how taking a battery powered watch would fare up in space.
Says Petros, “After the successful re-qualification of the Speedmaster Professional, equipped with the radial dial and encased within the Star Watch Case Company made cases — in fact, the first successful output from within the “Alaska” series of projects — the program office at NASA received a batch of 56 Speedmasters.
“What we know so far, is that — following what is a logical step in production, and in order to achieve a high quality of the offered repair service to go with it — certainly more than 56 watches were produced. We do not yet have a confirmation on the actual final production count, but what is attributed as the so-called “second batch” is without a doubt the extra production that was done to ensure continuous deliveries if needed as well as the servicing of the watches during their active lifespan.”
At recent auction seasons, Phillips had the ST145.022 and later the Speedsonic reference ST 188.002 Alaska III watches up for sale, which sold for US$187,500 and approximately US$164,000 (converted from exact sale figure of CHF162,500) respectively.
1979 — The Alaska IV Prototype
The chapter in the Alaska saga came in 1979 with the fourth prototype. This time the Speedmaster took on an all new digital face, held within the familiar twisted lug case, using the 1621 quartz caliber.
Now the Alaska IV Prototype was given the reference number ST186.004, which is not be mistaken for a similar commercial offering that Omega had in the catalogs at the time that had the reference number ST186.0004.
The primary difference between the two was the movement used, that is the ST186.0004 used the 1620 quartz caliber, which had a small light built in that could be activated on demand using the pusher at 3 o’clock. The ST186.004 prototype, which had the had 1621 quartz caliber, did not have a built in. Rather, it had what Omega called the BETA light system. Essentially, so that the watch would be constantly legible in poor light, Omega placed two strips of Tritium behind the LCD display.
As result of this primary difference, the case for the Alaska IV Prototype was slightly larger and even had larger pushers.
It’s speculated that no more than 20 units of the prototype were produced, but it can be confirmed that just 12 units were shipped to NASA for the watch to be tested in training and on the Space Shuttle. However, the watch was never adopted beyond that.
For the Speedmaster Collectors
No doubt, for the serious vintage Speedmaster collector, to own an original Alaska Project watch would be nothing short of a dream. Take for instance the Alaska III ST145.022 that Phillips sold at their inaugural New York sale in 2017: We now know that the winning bid for that watch came from our friend, William Robert of speedmaster101.com. His particular piece was from the second batch that the watch was delivered in, some of which are speculated to have ended up in public circulation. These were, therefore, not NASA property.
The Speedmasters and the Alaska Prototypes that were used by NASA are still NASA property and cannot be offered to the public for sale in any form. In fact, William recounts a story in which an auction house did have an authentic Alaska Prototype up for sale and were promptly visited by men from NASA in dark suits and sunglasses, who politely demanded that the watch be handed over.
So, unless luck bestows upon you another Alaska III, of the same type that William purchased, you’re best bet in owning an Alaska watch would the 2008 limited edition reissue.
The Future of the Moonwatch: The Condor and the X-33
The Alaska IV prototype was quite clearly the last chapter of the Alaska Projects. That’s not to say that thereafter, Omega stopped its research into the next generation of timepieces to equip future space explorers with.
However, very little is known about the secret project that Omega embarked on right after, save for its name. So, we turned to the only person who would know, whatever there is to know: Petros. He shared saying, “The “Condor” Project, an offspring of the long series of “Alaska” projects, was intended as a purely digital offering, encompassing all the technological advances available at the time.
“It was considered after the “Alaska IV” prototypes, that were a variant of a digital Speedmaster with an LCD screen and tritium illumination. It is too early in the research to divulge more details into actual production.”
While there’s nothing definitive known about the Condor Project, a great deal is known about the project that came after it. In fact, that project eventually turned into the über futuristic Speedmaster X-33, launched in 1998. The watch went on to be called the “Mars Watch” in line with the ambitions of the international space exploration community in reaching the red planet.
Made in consultation with American and European astronauts, the watch was powered by the caliber 1666, which had an analog hours, minutes and seconds display coupled with ring-shaped digital display for a second full set of functions. It was equipped to calculate elapsed time during missions of up to 1000 days and offered great low-light visibility thanks to the incorporated electroluminescent foil.
Says Petros, “Indeed the Omega Speedmaster X-33 is an actually an “offspring” of the long series of “Alaska” Projects, as the technologies industrialized within the X-33’s production were pioneered during the final stages of the “Alaska” projects. Nevertheless, the hybrid analog-digital space-faring chronograph had an actual secret codename during its development.
“In fact, this codename was so liked by the brand that it kept it as the new Speedmaster’s commercial name. The codename chosen was none other than the name for Lockheed Martin’s suborbital spaceplane demonstrator project: X-33!”
Omega further developed the X-33 to release the 2014, X-33 Sky-Walker. This titanium cased watch went on to become certified by the European Space Agency for all of its missions.
Today the X-33 remains the standard issue for NASA astronauts and as recent as 2014, the Speedmaster Professional could still be spotted on the spacesuits of Russian cosmonauts on space walks outside of the International Space Station. But concerning space exploration, where does Omega and its timekeeping expertise go from here? Says Petros, in summing up the discussion: “The pioneering spirit of Omega is a hugely integral part of our past, present and our future. It represents one of the best examples of the incredible power of our brand and our close relationship with the world of space exploration.
“It goes, thus, without saying that Omega is proudly working closely with all involved parties that will define and ensure the future of humanity’s space flight endeavors and its endless goal to understand and explore the universe.”