The Legendary Omega Speedmaster
Written by Anthony Tyme on June 2, 2019
The Pre-Moon Speedmaster
The Omega Speedmaster. In the list of truly timeless classic timepieces, the Omega Speedmaster, with all of its variations, truly claims the top position. What other watch can boast being flight-tested and then exclusively selected for the Apollo missions by NASA? What other watch company can boast that its timepieces have played such a pivotal role in world history?
The Speedmaster was not specifically designed as the space-faring watch we know it as. Its origins are far more modest, and in this post, we will walk through its long and illustrious history that saw it become the design and watch icon it is. The Speedmaster was born during the age of exploration, when humans were pushing the limits of what was previously considered possible. In 1957, Omega launched a series of three “Professional” watches – watches that were meant to be dedicated to a specific target group of individuals and professions: Seamaster (professional divers), Speedmaster (professional racecar drivers), and Railmaster (engineers). The Speedmaster was, like many other chronographs of the time, a racing chronograph. This first reference, the CK2915, was the first chronograph to move the tachymeter scale (a ring around the dial that allows the user to gauge the average speed of the vehicle over a standing kilometer or mile) to the outside of the watch instead of being printed directly on the dial. The styling cues of this first reference tie it to the other two watches in the Master- collection: there is the characteristic broad-arrow hour hand and dauphine minutes hand, and the straight instead of lyre-style lugs. However, the one thing that is readily apparent is that the core DNA has been retained over all these years: black dial featuring three subdials, each with a circular guilloche pattern, white on black print for legibility, and luminous hands and hour markers.
Omega Speedmaster CK2915 – the first Speedmaster
Powering this first rendition of the Speedmaster was the Cal. 321, which was used in the first 11 years of Speedmaster production and was also the caliber found in the Moonwatches that were used for the Apollo moonwalks. The chronograph functions are controlled by a lateral clutch and a column-wheel, which, though far more labor-intensive to manufacture, has a far crisper actuation and tactile feel than a cam-driven chronograph. The Cal. 321 Speedmasters also featured an antimagnetic movement cover and a shock-protected balance. To this day, the movement is recognized as one of the best-designed, reliable, and elegant chronograph movements of all time. The Cal. 321 (Lemania Cal. 27) can trace is lineage back to the Cal. 33,3, which was the first in a long line of chronograph calibers manufactured as a joint venture between Omega and Lemania.
Cal. 321, Cal. 861, Cal. 1863 (more elaborately-finished version of Cal. 1861). Note the column wheel and free-sprung balance of the Cal. 321, features that were dropped in the later versions
The First One In Space
The CK2998 succeeded the first Speedmaster in 1959 after only two years of production of that pivotal reference. Though the resemblance to the CK2915 is unmistakable, the watch went through a number of changes to make it more legible. Instead of a stainless steel tachymeter bezel, the CK2998 had a black anodized aluminum bezel insert, newly-designed alpha hands, o-rings around the pushers to improve water resistance, and a slightly larger case (40mm vs 39mm of the CK2915). It was this watch that started the Speedmaster’s legacy in space, as it travelled to space on the wrist of Wally Schira during the Mercury 8 mission on October 3, 1962.
Moon Watch, NASA Icon
Bear with me now – there is going to be a jumble of reference numbers! In 1962 and 1963, Omega released the two references 105.002 and 105.003, both more or less the same watch, with the latter having a slightly larger bezel diameter (39.7mm vs 38.6mm). It was these two references that ushered in one more component the modern Speedmaster design, namely the hands. It was these references that were the first to feature white baton hours and minutes hands, filled with luminous material, and a central chronograph seconds hand with a diamond-shaped tip. The 105.003 is the reference originally tested and selected by NASA for astronauts’ equipment, along with other hand-wound chronographs from Breitling and Rolex.
Below are some of the grueling tests the watches were forced to endure:
High Temperatures: 48-hours at 160°F followed by 20 minutes at 200°F
Low Temperatures: 4 hours at 0°F
High Pressure: 1.6 ATM for one hour
Vibration: 3 cycles of 30-minute vibrations varying from 5 to 2000 Hz
Linear acceleration: 1-7.25g in 333 seconds
Of all the watches tested, the Omega proved the most accurate, averaging +5 seconds per day after the battery of tests. Ever since March 1965, the Omega Speedmaster has been “flight qualified by NASA for all manned space missions” and since 1966 (starting with the 105.012 and 145.012), all watches with this spec have borne the word “Professional” on the dial.
And so we come to the Moonwatch…
Worn by both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo XI Moon landing on July 20, 1969, the ST105.012 is the Moonwatch. It is a transitional reference, as it is the first of the Moonwatches and the last to be built with the Cal. 321. As such, it is the missing piece between the vintage “racing” Speedmasters and the modern Moonwatch. The 1963 Speedmaster ST105.012 is the reference that created the look we now associate with the Moonwatch: an asymmetrical case design, chosen to increase protection to the pushers and the crown; lyre-style lugs, and the modern case size of 42mm.
The three pictures on the left of a Ref. 145.022, Cal. 861. Far right: 145.0022, Cal. 1861. The basic design philosophy of the Moonwatch has remained unchanged for close to 60 years
The Speedmaster Mark Series
The Omega Speedmaster and NASA are inextricably interwoven. The “Alaska Project” is the code name for a project undertaken by the two to develop a more refined Omega Speedmaster to create the perfect space watch. The new watch should be able to withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations of space and have a more robust external casing to survive vicious shocks and blows. The watch was an eye-opener, thanks to its white dial (for improved legibility and increased reflectivity of light, energy, and radiation), titanium case (a watchmaking first!), and the watch’s characteristic oversized red cover crafted of anodized aluminum (for protection from temperature fluctuation, surface temperature, and radiation). Five prototypes were created, at enormous cost to Omega, but NASA decided that the Omega Speedmaster 145.012 succeeded in its mission, so the Alaska Project was declared obsolete.
The Mark series of Speedmasters with their distinctive “70’s” aesthetic, are the result. These watches were bulky, with a cushion-cased case with integrated lugs that measured in at 45m x 41mm. The tachymeter bezel of these models was no longer an external bezel but was incorporated in the watch by printing it on the bottom of the mineral glass crystal. The Mark II was outfitted with the cam-actuated Cal. 861 that succeeded the Cal. 321 in 1968. This new movement had two principle benefits: 1. it was cheaper to manufacture, and 2. it had a higher beat rate of 21,600 vph (instead of the Cal. 321’s 18,000 vph). The Mark series went on to include the Mark III (which used Omega’s first automatic chronograph movement), Mark IV, and the Mark V (only available in Germany).
Speedmaster Mark II, showcasing the cushion-shaped case, integrated lugs, and tachymeter scale printed on the dial that are the hallmarks of this series
Speedmaster Reduced, Triple-Date
The Speedmaster Reduced of 1988 marked Omega’s foray into bringing a more affordable, smaller version of the Moonwatch to the market. The Speedy Reduced differs in several key areas from the classic Moonwatch: First, there’s the diameter of the Speedy Reduced, 38mm vs 42mm, second, it is automatic. As opposed to the manual-wind Omega-Lemania partnership calibers 321, 861, and 1861, the Speedy Reduced uses a modular chronograph complication by Dubois-Dépraz on top of an ETA 2891-A2 automatic base movement. The Speedmaster Reduced is the perfect watch for enthusiasts who 1. love the classic no-frills design of the Speedmaster Professional but feel that, at 42mm, it is a tad on the large side, and 2. prefer the practicality of having an automatic caliber.
Detailed pictures of the Speedmaster Automatic Date 3513.5, precursor to the Speedmaster Day-Date
A descendant of the Speedy Reduced is the so-called Mk40, the Speedmaster Day-Date (also known as the TDate / Triple Date). The Day-Date, with its use of a radial pointer-date, adds an additional measure of practicality to the Reduced. Though the Speedmaster Day-Date, like the Reduced, is smaller than a Moonwatch at 39mm, internally it differs rather substantially. The Day-Date uses an integrated automatic chronograph caliber, the venerable Valjoux 7751, instead of the piggy-back modular movement of its smaller predecessor.
The Speedmaster Limited Editions
In 1968, NASA chose the famous beagle Snoopy from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic as an icon for its missions, in the same year deciding to award a sterling silver Snoopy pin to NASA employees and contractors for achievements in the realm of human flight safety and / or mission success.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” These were the famous words spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell on April 14, 1970, following an explosion on board the Apollo 13 mission, which was originally slated to be a lunar landing mission. Immortalized in the 1995 movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, the tense hours following the explosion gave way to one of the Speedmaster’s finest moments. The shuttle began losing power and fuel after the explosion, and the only hope the astronauts had of a safe return to Earth lay in turning off all non-essential systems. Jim Lovell timed a 14-second burn of the engines using his Speedmaster, setting the correct trajectory for a safe return home.
Upon the safe arrival of the crew, NASA awarded Omega with the Silver Snoopy Award, and since then, Omega released two special editions (2003, 2015) celebrating this tremendous accomplishment.
The 2003 edition was a relatively modest one, with a Snoopy mission patch at 9-o’clock and a commemorative caseback. The 2015 has gone on to be a tremendous hit with collectors, thanks to its limited production run of 1970 pieces details that include a sterling silver Snoopy medallion on a backdrop of an enamel starry sky, white dial with a Snoopy graphic at 9-o’clock, a text balloon above the central inion, and comic frames around the first 14 seconds on the dial – a nod to the famed 14-second engine burn that allowed the Apollo 13 mission to reach Earth safely.
From The Moon to Mars
The 2004 special edition “From The Moon to Mars”, ref. 3577.50, was released not to commemorate a NASA mission, as are so many other limited-edition Speedmasters, but rather to capture the imagination by suggesting that we now turn our gaze to Mars as the next frontier of space travel. This edition of watches is believed to have been produced in as many as 6,000 pieces and has a “FROM THE MOON TO MARS” engraving on the caseback in addition to the true hallmark: three photorealistic images of the Earth (at 9-o’clock), Mars (at 3-o’clock), and the Moon (at 6-o’clock). The model was discontinued in 2012-2013.
The Alaska Project prototype watches also gave rise to a very special “reissue” that combines characteristics from both the Alaska I and Alaska II Projects. Included in the 2008 edition is a special external housing built from red aluminum that acts as a shield from temperature fluctuations (much as in the original prototype watches) and a white dial designed to reflect as much radiation, heat, and light as possible.
These are pictures of an Alaska Project Speedmaster that we just delivered to its lucky new owner!
In 1997, Omega released a commemorative boxed set to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Speedmaster, in a limited edition of 40, of course though Omega released an additional 10 sets for non-commercial use later in 1997 and in 1998. Every set included a Cal. 1861 as a separate piece, 22 NASA mission-related pieces (with the mission patch of each mission between 1965-1973 displayed on the 9-o’clock constant seconds subregister), and a remake of the CK2915, the very first Speedmaster. The boxed set came in a unique briefcase covered in spacesuit cloth – makes for one incredible collection! The missions represented are: Apollo 7, Apollo 8, Apollo 9 “Gumdrop & Spider”, Apollo 10 “Snoopy & Charlie Brown”, Apollo 11 “Columbia & Eagle”, Apollo 12 “Intrepid & Yankee Clipper”, Apollo 13 “Odyssey & Aquarius”, Apollo 14 “Kitty Hawk & Antares”, Apollo 15 “Endeavor & Falcon”, Apollo 16 “Casper & Orion”, Apollo 17 “America & Challenger”, Gemini V, Gemini VI, Gemini VII, Gemini VIII, Gemini IX, Gemini X, Gemini XI, Gemini XII, Skylab 1, Skylab 2, and Skylab 3.
exclusively for Vintage Portfolio
Omega caliber 321, 861, 1861: https://watchbase.com