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BOB’S WATCHES

ROLEX BLOG

To Boldly Go: The Space Watches

August 16, 2018

BY Paul Altieri

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When you think about the watches astronauts have worn on actual space missions, the name that immediately springs to most people’s mind is always the Omega Speedmaster. However the first watch worn on the surface of the moon is only one of a number of different space watches that have experienced life beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

Below, we take a look at some of the other timepieces that have braved the final frontier.

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Sinn 140/142

Frankfurt-based watchmaker Sinn is one of those companies that quietly goes about creating extraordinary timepieces for use in the harshest environments imaginable.

Founded in 1961 by pilot and flight instructor Helmut Sinn, its specialty lies in making watches and cockpit instruments for the world’s professional aviators. It has also long supplied Germany’s police and military forces.

SINN 140-1

German space watches like the Sinn 140 were pioneered by Helmut Sinn (Photo: worn and wound)

In 1985, their Sinn 140 S chronograph received its sternest challenge to date when German physicist and astronaut Reinhard Furrer wore one on his Spacelab D1 mission. It was an operation that would take on a special significance as the last successfully completed duty of the space shuttle Challenger, before the terrible tragedy that befell it just a few months later in January of 1986.

Furrer’s model, with its huge PVD-coated case, powered by the Lemania 5100 movement, worked flawlessly, proving that a self-winding chronograph could still perform in zero gravity.

It wasn’t the watch’s only trip into outer space either. Sinn 140s and 142s also accompanied astronauts to the Mir space station in 1992 and to Spacelab D2 in 1993, aboard another doomed ship, the Columbia.

Of course, the 140 S and 142 S hold a very special place in the hearts of horologists, and Sinn fans in particular; something the brand has been keen to capitalize on. In 2014, Sinn released the 140 A, a special edition at first limited to 200 pieces, then upped to 500 to meet the fierce demand.

An almost identical model to the originator, it retained all the features that made the classic space watch so suitable for its off-world mission, such as the internally rotating bezel and highly legible chronograph layout, and updated it with a sapphire crystal and an all-new movement. The automatic SZ01 caliber is a heavily reworked version of the renowned Valjoux 7750.  

Today, the 140 St and 140 St S carry on the Space Chronograph name, modern day versions of a truly exceptional watch.

Seiko 6139 Pogue

Whereas some people consider the Sinn 140 the first automatic chronograph to be used in space, in truth, the Seiko 6139 beat it to the distinction by more than a decade.

Seiko 6139 was one of the first space watches

Seiko 6139 was one of the first space watches (Photo: worn and wound)

It is a watch that would have had a fascinating enough history even without being blasted into the stratosphere. It made up one of the three challengers in the race to create the first self-winding chronograph movement, alongside the Caliber 11 developed by The Chronomatic Group (Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren et al) and the Zenith brainchild with the name that went on to become legend; the El Primero.

All three were launched in 1969, with the Seiko arriving in dozens of variations of dial markings, bezel colors and bracelet options, all of which would have struggled to look any more 1970s.

Like many watches from many manufacturers, the 6139 Pogue picked up its nickname from one of its most notable wearers, in this case former USAF pilot Colonel William Pogue. Originally one of the core Apollo astronauts and slated to be part of the later aborted Apollo 19 mission, in the early 70s, Pogue was transferred to the Skylab program.  

In a mission that lasted an incredible 84 days, through late 1973 and into 1974, he went into orbit aboard Skylab 4.

As to why he would have chosen the Seiko over the standard-issue Speedmaster, and bought it out of his own pocket—NASA didn’t distribute the manually-winding Omega model until very close to launch time. Pogue obviously needed a chronograph during the months of intense training prior to the mission, and the 6139 was the piece he preferred.

The precise model, famous for its striking combination of bright yellow dial and blue and red Pepsi bezel, is officially the 6139-6002. But to vintage Seiko fans, any 6139 with a yellow dial qualifies as a Pogue.

Today, the watch has remained an incredibly accessible foray into the world of vintage space watches, particularly for a model of double historical significance; perhaps the first ever automatic chronograph, but most definitely the first one in space. You can find examples of Seiko space watches in excellent condition for under $1,000. A beautifully nostalgic everyday wear, the 6139 oozes character and retro charm.

Omega Speedmaster

Obviously there was a time when the Speedmaster didn’t exist, but it is hard to imagine.

First unveiled in 1957, it has gone on to become one of those space watches for which the term iconic was created.

Omega Speedmaster Front and Center (Credit: vintageaddicted13 via eBay)

Omega Speedmaster Front and Center (Credit: vintageaddicted13 via eBay)

By the time of the first U.S. manned space missions, the Speedy was into its third generation—grown from the original 39mm case to 42mm and with the addition of O-ring gaskets around the pushers to protect against water ingress. Crucially, it was also driven by the Caliber 321, a joint venture between Omega and Lemania and used by other illustrious names in the industry such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantine. Recognized as one of the best chronograph movements ever made, it had particular resilience to magnetic fields and shock; vital attributes for its later role.

The Speedmaster formally tasted life outside our atmosphere on the 3rd October 1962, worn by Wally Schirra, one of the original seven astronauts of the Mercury space program.

With NASA gearing up for the Gemini and Apollo missions, both of which would require crews to perform space walks, they began searching for watches that could handle the extreme conditions.

Beginning that same year, they gathered chronographs as options for space watches from a number of manufacturers, including Rolex, Longines and Breitling, and subjected them to the ominous sounding Qualification Test Procedures.

Omega Speedmaster

The Omega Speedmaster is one of the most famous space watches

The three models out of six that survived went on to be put through a further 11 trials, commonly thought of as the most arduous assessments any watch has been put through before or since.

Examined for reliability in the face of massively high and low temperatures, resistance to pressure, humidity, acceleration, decompression and vibration—everything, in short, the astronauts themselves would face—only the Speedmaster passed the battery of tests.

Nobody, however, told Omega. The first they knew about it was when a photo of Gemini 4 crew member Ed White circulated in June of 1965, with one of the watches strapped to the outside of his spacesuit.

Once established, the Omega Speedmaster became the Omega Speedmaster Professional.

The watch’s greatest moment, so far at least, came on the 20th July 1969, when Buzz Aldrin stepped out on to the lunar surface, with his Omega on his arm. Neil Armstrong had left his model in the module as a backup for the malfunctioning electronic timing system, so the second man on the moon wore the first watch. Aldrin’s piece, possibly the most important horological artifact of them all, was sadly stolen a few months later and never recovered.

Since then, the Speedmaster has gone on to serve faultlessly through innumerable space missions, and Omega have released it in a bewildering number of different guises as well as limited edition examples.

It has continued to be developed and tested exhaustively, and a version is being designed to accompany the first manned mission to Mars, scheduled for 2030. The checks for that trip are likely to be even more demanding than for the moon.

While the Speedmaster has been released with automatic movements and even quartz, for the purist, only a manually-winding model hits the right note.

The first, and the one and only, Moonwatch.

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