What Watches Did NASA Astronauts Wear Before the Speedmaster’s Flight Qualification?By Sumit Nag
REVOLUTION recounts the many watches that NASA astronauts wore to space before the Speedmaster was Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions.
Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions (June 1, 1965)
James H. Ragan, retired NASA Project Engineer and Program Manager and Petros Protopapas, OMEGA International Brand Heritage Manager chronicles in the tome Moonwatch Only that in the lead-up to the Gemini missions, the Agency saw the need to “test, select and certify” a complete array of standard equipment for the astronauts’ use. One such equipment on the list was originally a request that was made by the astronauts themselves, “a watch for use during training and flight.”
Flight Crew Operations Director Deke Slayton took on the task of finding this watch by issuing an internal memo that listed the need for a, “highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews.” The memo then passed on to the hands of James Ragan. It was his task to send out the request for quotation to a list of watchmakers, stated earlier by Deke Slayton.
Three brands responded in time for NASA to take the proposed timepieces onboard for testing. These watches were: a Longines-Wittnauer 235T, a Rolex chronograph reference 6238 and, lastly, an Omega Speedmaster reference 105.003. Curious thing to point out here is that the Speedmaster used Omega’s own version of the Lemania 2310 movement, whereas the Rolex and Longines timepieces used their own versions of the Valjoux 72.
The rest, as we now know is history, with the Speedmaster 105.003 having survived the battery of tests that NASA had subjected the watch to before marking it, “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on June 1, 1965.
You see, the reason why NASA had to undertake such a qualification exercise, is because prior to this, their astronauts were strapping on personal watches to missions where every other piece of equipment was tested and verified by flight engineers to ensure absolute safety and success.
Therein lies our story today: what were these watches that were brought outside of the earth’s atmosphere, in the race for space as NASA initiated the Mercury missions (1959-1963)?
The following findings would not be possible without the dutiful records kept by one, LtCmdr Philip C., a friend and gentleman scholar responsible for the website moonwatchuniverse.tumblr.com/archive.
The Freedom 7 (May 5, 1961) and the Liberty Bell 7 (July 21, 1961)
We start off with Alan B. Shepard, Jr. who took on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961 and Virgil I. Grissom who took on Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961. Both Shepard and Grissom are believed to have not worn a watch onboard their missions.
The Friendship 7 (February 20, 1962)
It was John H. Glenn, Jr. who was the first NASA astronaut to have worn a wristwatch — of sorts — to space, onboard Friendship 7, February 20, 1962. Glenn wore a Heuer stopwatch, reference 2915A strapped to his arm over his spacesuit using an elastic band. There was supposedly a purpose in Glenn wearing a stopwatch. At 20 seconds from liftoff, it’s recoded on the mission transcript that he starts a “backup clock”. After, extensive research on his own part, Jeff Stein the man behind onthedash.com, tells us that it was the Heuer stopwatch that Glenn was referring to in the mission transcript.
The other, more significant, thing that Glenn lays claim to is that he was the first NASA astronaut to have completed three orbits around the Earth, in a flight that lasted a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds before Friendship 7 splashed down in the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Aurora 7 (May 24, 1962)
Next on the roster was M. Scott Carpenter for Aurora 7, launched on May 24, 1962. He was the one to have brought a wristwatch proper to space. This was the Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute, essentially a Navitimer with a 24-hour timescale dial, slide rule and chronograph function.
The story goes that Carpenter approached Breitling, in 1961, and requested for them to make him a watch with a 24-hour scale since a 12-hour scale, in the lack of the concept of day and night in space, would be pointless. The 24-hour scale Navitimer Cosmonaute was delivered to Carpenter just three days ahead of Aurora 7’s launch.
Sigma 7 (October 3, 1962)
On October 3, 1962 came Walter Marty Schirra Jr.’s Sigma 7 mission. Here is where Omega first lays its claim to space. Schirra on his flight, wore his personal Speedmaster CK2998-4. The Sigma 7 mission managed 6 complete orbits over a 9 hour 13 minute and 15 second flight.
Faith 7 (May 15, 1963)
The 7th and final Mercury mission was the Faith 7 (May 15, 1963), with astronaut L. Gordon Cooper onboard. On his wrist was, again, a Speedmaster CK2998-4, which was his personal property. But, it wasn’t the only watch he was wearing. Cooper also had a Bulova Accutron Astronaut on himself. The Accutron Astronaut was a watch that Bulova had attached the Astronaut moniker to, following the fact that as of 1961 all USAF & NASA test pilots were wearing the tuning fork regulated wristwatch.
On hindsight, double-wristing wasn’t a bad idea. Cooper’s was the longest Mercury flight, having completed 22 orbits. However, his craft started showing troubling signs as of orbit 19, when the 0.05g light came on. A faulty signal as the light was only meant to turn on during reentry. Next, during orbit 20 the craft lost all attitude readings. During orbit 21, a short-circuit caused the automatic stabilization and control system to switch off.
With help from the ground and his own training, it’s said that Cooper manually maneuvered the craft into reentry. Cooper supposedly drew lines on his window to help stay aligned with the constellations as he flew the craft. He also shared later that he used his wristwatch to time the manual burn, that redirected Faith 7 from orbit to reentry. Trouble is, Cooper never stated exactly which of his two watches he used for this crucial task.
The Gemini Missions & the Flight Qualified Speedmaster
Next came from the Gemini missions, with the first manned flight being Gemini 3 (March 23, 1965), piloted by John Young along with command pilot, Virgil “Gus” Grissom. This the flight just before the Speedmaster 105.003 was “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on June 1, 1965. Grissom and Young both wore a 105.003. Additionally, they also wore the Accutron Astronaut tuning fork watch.
The First Non-NASA Watches in Space
Here at the tail end of our account of the many wristwatches that the pioneering NASA astronauts took to space, ahead of the Speedmaster being flight qualified, it’s important to point out that the NASA astronauts weren’t the first to bring a watch to space. In fact, the first watch in space wasn’t even on a human being.
March 9, 1961: the Russians launched their Sputnik-4, which had on board a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovich, some mice, a guinea pig and a dog named Chernushka (Blackie, in Russian). Chernushka had a watch strapped to it: a timepiece from the Petrodvorets Watch Factory called Pobeda (Victory, in Russian). This was never part of the intended mission.
Now, unlike the unfortunate Laika (first living thing to orbit the earth in space), Chernushka returned to earth very much alive. The powers that be at the Soviet space program were able to determine using engravings on the back of the watch that this unauthorized object was strapped onto Chernushka by Soviet aerospace medical researcher Dr Abraham Genin. Needless to say, Dr Genin was admonished (for what was basically, history’s first space prank).
In 1989, the Smithsonian Institution interviewed Dr Genin on film, where he recounts the story of his Pobeda (which was therefore the first watch in space) and Chernushka, while holding said watch in his hand.
Thereafter, the first watch to have gone to space on the wrist of a human being (12 April 1961), was the Sturmanskie (Navigator, in Russian) watch made by the Moscow Watch Factory, strapped to Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, who is ultimately the first man to orbit the earth in space.