The Right Stuff: Inside the Omega Speedmaster Professional
By: Jack Forster
Part I: Glory Days
On November 21, 1962, President John F. Kennedy met with the (then) Director of NASA - James Webb and Webb's deputy in charge of manned space flight - Brainerd Holmes. The meeting, according to NASA official Robert Seamans Jr. who also attended, was "one of the most dramatic" that he had ever attended and the subject was nothing less than whether the United States would pursue a lunar landing as the primary objective, not only of NASA, but of the entire nation. The meeting, which was recorded on audiotape, shows a President determined to set a course for the moon as quickly as possible, and a Director equally determined to clarify that a moon landing, while politically desirable, should not displace considerations of basic science and safety. Kennedy was aware of the risks, but remained adamant on the matter of beating the Soviets to the moon:
"We've spent half the expenditures, we've wrecked our budget on all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in the pell-mell fashion is because we hope to beat them (the Soviets) and demonstrate that starting behind it (them), as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them. I think it would be a helluva thing for us." - JFK, November 21, 1962
Kennedy's determination was understandable. Only a month earlier, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a nuclear war had been averted through so ticklish a combination of diplomacy and saber rattling that it was only by the narrowest of margins that there was still a Washington D.C. in which to debate the issue at all. It had already been a busy year for the space program - on May 24, Scott Carpenter flew his Aurora 7 Project Mercury spacecraft, and on October 3, Wally Schirra flew Sigma 7, the first Mercury mission to go without a hitch (and during which Schirra revealed his membership in the Ancient and Honorable Order of the Turtles, an Air Force drinking society). Beating the Soviets had long since taken on the dimension of a moral imperative.
On a lighter note, just two days after Schirra's successful flight, another arch-enemy of the Evil Empire had vaulted from the pages of one of Kennedy's favorite authors onto the silver screen; it was the premiere of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No , which starred an obscure Scotsman (Darby O'Gill and the Little People, anybody?) with a pronounced burr and an air of nonchalant menace named Sean Connery, whose rough edges had been smoothed over by director Terence Young, a suave Cambridge graduate and expert in East Asian history who was a former tank commander and a veteran of the disastrous Operation Market Garden around Arnhem in Belgium - fighting yet another Evil Empire (we do seem to go through them, don't we?. Young had been, in fact, shelling Arnhem while the teenaged Audrey Hepburn was living there under Nazi occupation; they would work together years later and joke that Young had been shelling his favorite star without knowing it.)
Connery, as every watch fancier knows, wore a Rolex Submariner for the film, but it was another watch whose career was about to quite literally, take off, that same year - a rather quietly elegant chronograph called the Omega Speedmaster. President Kennedy, of course, couldn't possibly have foreseen all the repercussions of his sometimes heated argument with the temperamental and fractious James Webb, but one consequence was that before the year was out, the search had begun for a watch that would suit NASA's needs for a watch that could be used as a standard issue mission watch for the space program. Wally Schirra had already worn one on Project Mercury's Sigma 7, and as the Apollo program began to gather steam, the way had been paved for the official selection process that was to climax, in 1964, in what aerospace watch enthusiasts think of as The Great Space Race Watch Torture Test, which culminated in the selection of the Speedmaster.
Coincidences and Multiverses
By an interesting coincidence, November 21, 1962 also happens to be my birthday- well, I say coincidence, but connections or their absence are in the mind of the beholder, and while the specific date itself may not matter all that much one way or another, the general time frame has a lot to do with my own fascination with the Speedmaster (at that time still not "Professional," by the way.) When you grow up obsessed with the space program and when months of excited waiting are periodically punctuated by the roar of a rocket leaving the Earth bound for the Moon, you develop something of a fascination with the impedimenta of space travel (those Hasselblad cameras were another early obsession - now as avidly collected and for all I know as expensive or more so than period-Speedmasters. Although, in this brave, new, post-Omegamania world, I'm not so sure.)
I had no idea, of course, while I lay in repose in a bassinet at Norwalk General Hospital that I was lucky to have had a world to be born into at all. As the years have gone by it's become clearer and clearer to historians that it was only by a whisker that nuclear war was averted in October. The physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark has an interesting theory, which is that if the universe is infinite (which appears to be the case) then the visible universe is only an infinitesimal part of a vast multiverse. One interesting and inevitable consequence, of course, is that you can calculate about how many observable universes away from ours ("Hubble volumes") you'd have to go before running into one in which the particles are arranged the same way they are in ours - where, quite literally, a doppelganger of you is reading these words on a doppelganger-Earth.
Or not, as well. If in the vast infinitude of space, all possibilities are fulfilled, then somewhere out there is an Earth that never made it past October of 1962 in the calendar fudged together by a Roman emperor and a pope, and which now orbits its uncaring star emitting a trifle more radiation than it should. Life, undoubtedly, still is present on that other Earth (life is pretty stubborn) but I'd bet dollars to donuts I'm not on it. Sometimes it's nice to reflect how unlikely and interesting it is to be here at all.
U-2 reconnaisance photo, Cuba, 1962
I probably would have been a lot less inclined to such dime store philosophizing if it weren't for the space program (to bring this meander slightly untidily back to the subject) and so we return (having conceptually traveled a remarkable number of Hubble volumes and back) to the business of the Omega Speedmaster. After years of being fascinated with the watch but for one reason or another, not owning one, I came to pick one up a few years ago, and in the fullness of time it came to need a service (the truth is it probably needed one when I bought it but damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, I wanted to wear the darned thing for a while.) With the able aid of a watchmaker friend, I decided to put myself to the task of better grasping the Speedmaster's anatomy.
The funny thing about watches is that like many products of human cleverness - and indeed like many physical systems - understanding them requires a particular kind of intellectual effort (at least it does for me; for all I know most enthusiasts grasp the intricacies of minute repeaters with the ease). Intuition, as I've discovered from studying science a little myself and then from trying to teach it to others, is often a spectacularly lousy guide to understanding physical processes (sometimes it's not, of course, but boy, when your intuition tells you something is true that isn't, look out.) The fact that I'm here at all, to bounce back to the Cuban Missile Crisis and that chancy Fall of 1962, is also due to something interestingly counterintuitive, which is that the proposal that would lead to the resolution of the crisis came from none other than the KGB rezidentura in Washington at the time, a man known as Fomin but who was in fact Alexandre Semyonovich Feklisov, the KGB controller of Klaus Fuchs and Julius Rosenberg. (Fomin happened to have lunch with John Scali of ABC news, and suggested a possible solution to the crisis.)
Alexandre S. Feklisov
Julius Rosenberg was undoubtedly a spy, at least according to Feklisov, but he "didn't understand anything about the atomic bomb" as Feklisov later remarked. So nuclear war was averted by a lunch date between a journalist and a foreign spy working for the very government that menaced the US, who had been the controller of a man and woman convicted and executed of helping that government learn more about the atomic bomb, who had in fact not known anything about it to begin with. One thing you apparently get a lot of in history, in addition to counterintuitive events, is irony. Like the fact that one secret Rosenberg apparently did pass to the Russians was the design for a proximity fuse, a variation of which would be used on the missiles that shot down U2 pilot Rudolph Anderson on the 27 of October, killing him, and deepening the crisis the Feklisov was trying to - well, defuse.
Russian built SA-2 "Guideline" missile, which shot down U-2 pilot Rudolph Anderson over Cuba
The Speedmaster's history - as an amalgamation of counterintuitive principles and otherwise - begins several decades earlier - in 1957 as a matter of fact, the year that Sputnik 1 became the first satellite to orbit the Earth, as long as we are keeping track of coincidences! The Speedmaster wasn't intended, obviously, to be a purpose built aerospace instrument since sending people into space was science fiction at the time - later in '57, Laika the dog became the first astronaut, dying of stress and exposure to elevated temperatures in flight, and putting a watch on an astronaut's wrist was certainly not a guiding principle in the design. The movement went back even further, having started life as project 27 CHRO C12 in the 1940s, the movement was launched in 1942 as a joint project between Omega and Lemania, who supplied it as an ebauche as Lemania cal. 2310. The designers, Albert Piguet and Jacques Reymond, created what many collectors think of as one of the highest developments of the classic, lateral clutch, column wheel controlled chronograph, with a Breguet overcoil hairspring (antimagnetic and with shock protection after 1946, no doubt factors in helping the Speedmaster pass some of NASA's torture tests.) Omega designated the movement cal. 321, and it was used in a variety of chronographs. A testament to its quality is that it has been used over the years as a base movement by Breguet, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin, among others – sometimes in very fancy dress but like James Bond in a tux (well, Sean Connery in a tux, anyway), hiding real toughness beneath its formal exterior.
So much attention is usually paid by collectors to the history of the movement that the fact that the case didn't spring fully armed from the brow of Zeus is often forgotten; the Speedmaster case was designed, apparently, by one Claude Baillod, about whom posterity has recorded little (at least the posterity I've been able to find.) There are a good few Baillod families in Switzerland, though, who mostly trace their ancestry to the village of Gorgier, which is near St. Aubin in Neuchatel. Many claim descent from the legendary Jacques Baillod who was knighted for defeating the army of the Count of Romont in 1476, receiving the motto: Vires agminis unus habet ("one has the strength of an army") and when Neuchatel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815, many Baillod family members were watchmakers, some of considerable fame. The Speedmaster case originally had straight lugs, acquiring its bombe lugs in 1966 (pronounced "bomb-bay" – like the city. Or the doors on a bomber for that matter! It was a significant year for bombs of all sorts; the US lost four H-bombs when a B-52 collided with a KC-135 tanker over Spain and US planes began dangerous bombing missions over Hanoi and Haiphong, exposing them to Russian made SAM missiles - those darned proximity fuses again.)
In its original form, in 1957, the Speedmaster had a metal bezel with black numbers engraved on it, was 39 rather than 40mm, and had the so called 'broad arrow' hands; it flirted briefly with alpha hands before settling on the pragmatic baton hands that it still has today (one man's classicism is another's pragmatism - is another's feckless indecision, for that matter). Enthusiasts fanatically describe each and every minor variation in the Speedmaster's dial, case, hands and movement (you know who you are - gadzooks, the tail of the R is below the rest of the letters; the Omega logo is printed, or metal....well, others have done it definitively) but the fact is that these variations are to the Speedmaster enthusiast like the variations in butterfly genitalia are to the lepidopterist - of interest only to the specialist, who as MFK Fisher said of the lover of raw oysters, is warmed by a fanatical fire known only to himself. (You know who you are.)
Fighter Jocks and Torture Tests
By the time Wally Schirra, famous practical joker, honorable Turtle, and bloodied fighter pilot (killed himself a Mig-15 in Korea - flying an F-84, by the way, not the later F-86 Saber; he deserved his Distinguished Flying Cross just for winning a knife fight with the Mig, a far more able dogfighter) had already flown with a Speedmaster, and once John F. Kennedy had, in the seminal meeting of 11/21/62, dispelled any further doubts as to whether or not kicking some dialectic materialist ass was or was not the reason we were in space in the first place, the wheels were turning in their bureaucratic fashion down in Texas, home of NASA's Manned Space Center (later the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) to pick a watch that would officially get strapped on any Spam lucky enough to find its patriotic butt in a can headed for a confrontation with the Evil Empire in the High Frontier. Word on the street is that NASA started looking in 1961, when a NASA employee bought the Speedmaster at Corrigan's Jewelry Store in Houston Texas - paying, probably, somewhere around the full retail price, a whopping 82 dollars and fifty cents.
After the Speedmaster's debut spaceflight with Wally Schirra, it traveled into space again - notably with Gordon Cooper, an Eagle Scout and ex-Marine who like many Project Mercury astronauts cut his aviator's teeth on F-84's and Sabres. Cooper wore two watches on Faith 7 , a Speedmaster and a Bulova Accutron, which in addition to having a high-tech aura also had the not inconsiderable PR advantage of being (at the time) an American firm (the Accutron despite repeated attempts never did become an official NASA watch, although Apollo cockpit timers were tuning fork movement Bulova instruments, as it turned out.) Cooper used the Omega to time the retro-rocket firing sequence for re-entry, and the watch performed well, but the real question, which the relatively benign environment of a pressurized and heated capsule interior could not answer, was how well the Speedmaster (or other candidate watches for that matter) would serve not only inside but also outside a spacecraft. Not only that, since whatever watch NASA ended up choosing would also have to be able to function as a backup timing device for critical events like timing maneuvering burns, the assumption was that it might be exposed to the type of environment found in a spacecraft during a catastrophic or potentially crippling equipment failure - sudden increases or decreases in temperature, sudden loss of cabin pressure, venting of toxic combustion products into the cabin atmosphere, and so on. Nobody at the time probably thought there was, realistically, too much of a chance of such a thing happening, but there are times when you're awfully, awfully glad that someone somewhere in the decision making chain of events said to themselves, "better safe than sorry," and making sure that the astronaut's chronograph could tolerate some abuse later turned out to have been a very good idea.
So what did NASA do to the poor chronographs they selected? Well, they baked them (up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit) they froze them (to zero degrees Fahrenheit) they soaked them (95% humidity steambath) they oxidized them (pure O atmosphere- that's right, boys and girls, pure oxygen is very reactive and will break chemical compounds down - why do you think antioxidants are good for you?) they jolted them (six 40-g decelerations, in six different directions. They should have printed, "maladjusted in six positions" on them) and simulated a sustained seven and a quarter g takeoff; they decompressed them (hard vacuum, and then for good measure they baked them again while they were at it; ninety minutes of both at up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit again). Just for grins, they vibrated them at up to 2000 Hz and then, for some reason, they blasted them with sound at 130 db (about as loud as the front row at a very, very loud rock concert. Hey, it was the sixties.)
"It Dawned On Me That We Were In Serious Trouble."
Now, lest any of this strike y'all as excessive, let's bear in mind that Space is Not A Nice Place. In fact, life is hard put to it to survive for very long - no atmosphere to breathe, or to moderate temperatures; enough radiation to make every chromosome in every cell in your body curl up and cry for its momma; blood and body fluids start to boil in the vacuum; and to get there, you basically have to strap yourself into a flying bomb. Rockets, bluntly put, would more than anything else like to blow up, and riding one out of the Earth's atmosphere and gravity well may be great to break up the monotony, but it's not necessarily something you would want to do every day. And the Speedmaster was going to be riding the then-under-development Saturn V, the magna mater of all rockets: a three stage, liquid fueled monster that was 363 feet high and 33 feet in diameter. There really is no way to grasp what a Saturn V launch must have been like if you weren't there; the five main first stage engines generated 7.5 milliion pounds of thrust and created a man-made earthquake picked up by seismographs all across the Southeast USA. Maybe shaking the watches and blasting them with high decibel sound wasn't such a bad idea after all.
March 1, 1965, was the day they finally finished running the candidate watches through their little horological purgatory. It seems like a kind of a long time to take to shake 'n' bake a Rolex, an Omega, and a Longines Wittnauer (the three candidate watches) but maybe they were just being thorough (How was your day at work dear? –Oh, you know, the usual, stared at watches in the oven all day. Again. Where's the Chivas Regal?) and the other two watches both failed (the Longines popped its crystal on two occasions; the Rolex stopped twice from humidity and once during the high temperature test, when the seconds hand warped, binding against the other hands. The Speedmaster passed but not without a bloody nose; the luminescent material on the dial was destroyed, and it gained and lost considerable time during various portions of the test. But it survived.
The Speedmaster's chance to really shine, of course, happened because some clumsy duffer whose name has been lost to history dropped one of the Command and Service module's liquid oxygen tank two inches. That was the immediate cause - the pipes inside the tank that directed oxygen flow were damaged, and the problem wasn't discovered until close to launch. With the damaged pipes inside the only way to empty the tank before refilling it for the mission was to run the heaters at the highest temperature; only 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but the real issue was that this meant a steady 65 volt current flow through thermostats only meant to handle 28 volts (the thermostats were supposed to have been upgraded from 28 to 65 volts but the engineers at Beechcraft, a Saturn V subcontractor, had overlooked them when upgrading the tank.) The best guess is that the excess voltage fused the thermostats, rendering them inoperable and allowing temperatures inside the tank to get so high that the insulation on the wires melted, leaving them exposed - and the wires were inside the tank.
At Apollo XIII mission time 02 07 52 58, just after a TV broadcast that none of the networks carried because spaceflight had become 'run of the mill' (sic transit gloria!) a 'cryo tank stir' procedure was called for by ground control; this consisted of briefly running fans inside the tank to circulate the liquid oxygen - but the wires going to the fans had no insulation left on them. They short circuited, producing sparks, and an explosion ensued that was so powerful that it blasted a hole in the side of the Command Module that left a hole - well, to paraphrase Earnest Hemingway, was big enough to drive a car through if it was a small car and you wanted to drive it there. At mission time 02 07 55 20, the most famously misquoted line in all of aerospace history was spoken by an individual identified in the mission transcript as 'CDR' – Commander James A. Lovell: I believe we've had a problem here. (The transcript identifies the speaker as Lovell, but the actual tape seems to clearly indicate that the famous words were spoken by CMP - Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert.) CapComm -ground control- responds, This is Houston. Say again please. This time, Lovell answers, Houston , we've had a problem. We have a main bus B undervolt (loss of power.)
It would be presumptuous at this point to do anything more than quote the words of Commander Lovell:
"I guess it's kind of interesting to know what the feelings of the crew are when something like this happens. When you first hear this explosion or bang ... you don't know what it is. We've had similar sounds in the spacecraft before that were for nothing. ... and then I looked out the window and saw this venting ... my concern was increasing all the time. It went from 'I wonder what this is going to do to the landing' to 'I wonder if we can get back home again' ... and when I looked up and saw both oxygen pressures ... one actually at zero and the other one going down ... it dawned on me that we were in serious trouble."
The subsequent dialogue, and actual tapes of the exchange, sound surprisingly calm but the flight surgeon's data telemetry showed that the astronaut's pulse rates were skyrocketing. With no oxygen to run the fuel cells, the astronauts were forced to use the LM - the Lunar Module - to which the Command Module was docked, as a lifeboat, and the loss of oxygen for the fuel cells meant that every scrap of battery power in the LM had to be conserved, and that meant turning off every piece of equipment with an on/off switch - including the cockpit timers and the navigation computer. The Speedmaster, suddenly, went from being a footnote in the mission manifest - Item no. A202, Part. No. SEB121000039-02, 'chronograph' stored 'on crew' – to being the only way the crew could tell how long they should burn the LM descent engines for
course correction burns (they couldn't use the Command/Service module engine for fear that the explosion had damaged it and firing up might be the last thing they ever did.) The moment of glory, on which Speedmaster fans have been dining out ever since, was on the return leg of the 'free return' trajectory which took the crippled Command/Service Module and LM around the moon and back towards the Earth.
By then, to save power everything on the LM had been shut down, except for minimal life support and communications systems. With no power for the LM navigation computers or cockpit timers, the astronauts had to orient the spacecraft for the 14 second engine burn by lining up the Earth's terminator and the Sun in the LM window - literally flying by eye - and timing the burn was done with Jack Swigert's Speedmaster. (The official burn time was actually 15 seconds but it's often reported as 14 as the procedure was to shut the LM descent engine down manually at 14 seconds.)
So here we are, boys and girls - we're there, in our imagination, where anybody who could listen to a radio, watch a TV, or read a newspaper could put themselves in April of 1970 - ready in our mind's eye to push that little metal button, cue the engine firing and cutoff, and let's imagine further that we can slow time down and see exactly what does go on inside the Speedmaster when you set the chronograph going. . .
Well. . . now hold on a second. Reader, we have a problem. If you're not one of the lucky or canny collectors who happens to have gotten a Speedmaster made before the fall of 1968, then the Speedmaster that sends you back in time to that cold, dark spacecraft lost in the inky cold of space isn't exactly the same one Swigert had on his wrist - the movement's different. In October or November of 1968, the classic column wheel configured cal. 321 was replaced with the cal. 861 - similar to the cal. 321 but importantly, using what's called a shuttle and cam system for coordinating the various parts that make the chronograph start, stop, and reset. (We lost the Breguet overcoil too, sorry to say.) In fact, in 1996, a further alteration making the movement an 18 jewel movement rather than 17, and changing a metal part for a plastic one, summoned into existence the cal. 1861, which is probably what you've got on your wrist. More to the point, it's what I have on mine, so that's what we're going to look at. (The switch in calibers from 321 to 861 occurred in 1968 and Apollo XIII flew in 1970 but most sources seem to agree that the watches used in the Apollo missions were all acquired by March of 1965, when the first Speedmasters were issued to the Gemini crews.)
But don't let that discourage you too much. Memory and nostalgia after all are not born of the exercise of reason, and if it takes a tiny bit of creative license to make us feel like we're using the same watch to time dryer loads and parking meters that Swigert used to keep the hopes of a nation alive and bring himself and his comrades back home, it's not the deadliest horological sin we could commit. Besides, as we'll see, while cal. 861/1861 may not be a Moonwatch in the narrowest sense, we can take consolation in knowing that it's still a space watch.
But enough pedantry - return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear (any Lone Ranger fans out there?), and let's see what makes the legend tick:
Continued in Part 2.....
Jack Forster has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work.
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