The History of the Omega Speedmaster, From Racing to Space
Although it has undoubtedly been surpassed in fame and value on the secondary market by its chronograph cousin, the Rolex Daytona, Omega’s Speedmaster remains undeniably iconic - a watch that, like the Daytona or the Tank, warrants a place in every serious collection.
Most often dubbed ‘the Moonwatch’, the Speedmaster’s story is one of the most famous in the world of watches, and while it may lack the glitz and celebrity cosign of its Rolex counterpart, the Speedmaster’s technical accomplishments and staid, practical design helped to popularise chronographs – something the Daytona would forever be in its debt for.
Early Development: From the Atomic Age to the Space Age
Debuting in 1957, the Speedmaster entered the world alongside two other landmark Omega models, the Railmaster and the Seamaster 300, as part of the company’s ‘Professional’ collection. Launched at a time when the term ‘tool watch’ signified a real-world application for these complex machines, the Professional line was intended to compete with some of Omega’s biggest rivals.
In the case of the Railmaster, this was Rolex and IWC, whose respective Milgauss and Ingenieur models had become favourites within the scientific community, while the Seamaster 300 was designed to capitalise on the rise of diving and challenge the supremacy of Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms and Rolex’s Submariner.
Although it had no direct competitor at the time, the Speedmaster’s trio of sub-dials and base 1000 tachymeter had one thing in mind: speed. Although Omega had been the official Olympic timekeeper since 1932, the rise of motor racing in the 1950s represented a perfect use-case for the Speedmaster and a chance for Omega to stamp its mark on an industry that its competitors had yet to infiltrate.
The very first Speedmaster reference, the CK2915, was powered by a Lemania Caliber 321 movement, and established a design language that has changed little in the 65 years since, with some notable exceptions. The most prominent of these are the chunky and decidedly retro ‘Broad Arrow’ hands – which also featured on the Railmaster and Seamaster at the time – and the steel-etched tachymeter, which marked the first time that a wrist-worn chronograph had its tachymeter located on the bezel and not the dial.
Despite this, both the hands and the tachymeter were updated just two years later with the reference 2998. In the interests of accuracy and legibility, the Broad Arrow hands were replaced by the same sword-like alpha hands that were present on the sub-dials, while the tachymeter made its way onto a contrasting black anodized aluminium bezel insert – a distinctive and unmistakable feature that has since become a hallmark of the Speedmaster.
The Speedmaster was to remain fairly stable through the early 1960s, with the 2998 reference undergoing a series of minor tweaks across eight different sub-references (-1 through -6, and -61 and -62) that are mostly the concern of die-hard collectors. The most significant of these are seen on the 2998-3, where the ‘Base 1000’ title on the tachymeter is replaced by ‘Tachymètre 500’ and the 2998-4, where stick hands first appear on the three sub-dials.
Becoming the Moonwatch: Wally Schirra, NASA & the Gemini Missions
It would be all too easy to get lost in the weeds of Speedmaster minutiae (to the delight of absolutely no one I’m sure) and while we won’t spend long there, it is necessary to do so in order to understand why these early years and iterations were so important to what the Speedmaster would become.
From the outset, the Speedmaster was designed to do a job, and with each new reference, aesthetics were pared back in favour of functionality, so that by the early 60s, the retro, Atomic Age face of the CK2915 had given way to the precise, instrument-like appearance of the 2998.
No doubt it was this pursuit of precision that caused the 2998 to wind up on the wrist of Wally Schirra, a move that would lead it, and Omega, into space. Although the Speedmaster would be officially issued to the Apollo 11 astronauts later in the decade, Schirra’s 2998 was his own, and it became the first Omega to leave Earth’s atmosphere on October 3, 1962, when Schirra wore it during his 9-hour orbit aboard the Mercury Atlas 8.
Whether the Omega’s performance on this voyage attracted NASA’s attention in any official capacity is hard to say, but by 1964 the space agency had put out a request for wrist chronographs to undergo testing, to which only Omega, Breitling, Rolex and Longines responded. The watch Omega submitted was not the reference 2998 that Schirra had worn, but a newer model, the 105.003, and it is here that we must briefly return to some technical talk.
The 105.003 was the first Speedmaster to feature the thin white hands that are now a mainstay of the model, as well as larger pushers and a generally thicker case. While the subsequent reference 105.012 would feature crown guards around the pushers as well as a larger (42mm) case and the word ‘Professional’ printed on the dial, the 105.003 retained the smaller (38mm) dimensions and prominent pushers of the early and pre-1960s references.
Despite their differences, both models were produced and sold concurrently, from 1964-1968 in the case of the 105.012, and ‘64-’69 for the 105.003. Nonetheless, it was the 105.003 that was sent to NASA – the only watch from the four manufacturers to pass the space agency’s 10 extreme tests. By early 1965, NASA had assessed the Omega Speedmaster as “flight-qualified for all manned space missions”, and on March 23, 1965, it joined the crew of Gemini III as the first (official) watch in space.
The Gemini missions marked another first for the Speedmaster, which accompanied Ed White on the first spacewalk in June 3, 1965. Impressive as they were, however, all of these missions were simply steps on the path to a much larger and more distant goal: the moon.
Apollo 11, Armstrong & Aldrin
While the reference 105.003 was certified by NASA, it was actually the 105.012 and the later 145.012 that were used throughout the early Apollo missions, while both references were present on the Apollo 11 voyage: the 105.012 worn by Neil Armstrong and the 145.012 by Michael Collins.
Which of the two references stepped foot on the lunar surface on July 21, 1969 – and is the ‘true’ Moonwatch – is open for debate. Although some sources suggest that, like Armstrong, Aldrin was issued a 105.012, others say it is impossible to know due to the fact that Aldrin’s famous watch was stolen while in transit to the Smithsonian Museum in 1970.
But the Speedmaster is not only famous for going to the moon but also for making it back, and its presence was never more crucial to the success of the return journey than during the Apollo 13 mission.
Following the explosion of a reserve oxygen tank that damaged the spacecraft and its onboard electronics, the Apollo 13 astronauts – Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise – spent six days looping around the moon in near-freezing conditions, rationing their food and water and jury-rigging life support systems as they prepared to re-enter Earth's atmosphere.
Having drifted off-course during re-entry, the crew needed to conduct a series of engine burns to correct their trajectory. Lacking any onboard equipment with which to time the burns, the astronauts turned to the only tools they had left, their Speedmasters. Supported by the Speedmaster’s stopwatch function and the precision of Swiss watchmaking, the Apollo 13 crew carried out two burns of 14 seconds and 21.5 seconds that put them back on course. On April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean southeast of American Samoa, its crew finally back on Earth after having travelled farther into space than anyone before or since.
A Pioneer Without Peer
With the success of the moon landings and the Apollo program, space had captured the global public imagination like never before, and Omega was one of the greatest beneficiaries. Having proved its quality through both Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, Omega ramped up production of the Speedmaster to capitalise on this surge of interest – a move that saw them abandon the impressive and much-loved calibre 321 movement for a calibre 861 in an effort to cut costs.
This post moon landing reference, the 145.022, was manufactured with only minor variations for almost 20 years from 1969 to 1988, a time in which tens, or even hundreds of thousands of models made their way into the hands of owners around the world. Though it would later be overtaken in popularity and prestige by the Daytona, the Speedmaster played an undeniable role in popularising chronographs – a straightforward, nerdy and necessary step on the pathway to Paul Newman cool – without which, Rolex’s most coveted model may never have found the success it did.
If the Daytona is the red carpet and the silver screen, then the Speedmaster is the man behind the scenes. Its story is one of small changes and great triumphs. Where other pieces in the watch world may carry more prestige and glamour, the Speedmaster will forever hold its status as playing a role in one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
Written by Nick Ainge-Roy
Edited by Sam MacKinnon