Fashion/Beauty  •  Timepieces

Through the Loupe: The Omega Speedmaster

In celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Omega Speedmaster, we take a look through the loupe at the historical and horological significance of this iconic timepiece.

August 23, 2017
It is July 16, 1969, 9:31:50 a.m EDT, Cape Kennedy. Securely strapped to the seats inside their cramped command module, the crew of Apollo 11 (commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins) patiently awaits the start of the sequence that would ignite their Saturn V rocket and launch them into the cosmos. Eight years earlier, president Kennedy had promised to go to the Moon, and every effort, technological advance, and step up the ladder of science since then has culminated in this one defining moment. And, as mission control starts the countdown, I often imagine the astronauts looking down at their wrists, their eyes tracking the seconds hands of their ‘NASA Flight Qualified’ Omega Speedmasters ref. ST 105.012 until they get to the countdown: 3……2……1. If only smartphones and Instagram were around back then, what epic wrist shots could’ve come out of that scene.
The crew of Apollo 11, from left to right: commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, lunar module pilot 'Buzz' Aldrin.
A few days later Neil and Buzz took those few small steps on the moon and the rest is history – the Speedmaster became the iconic “Moon Watch” and Omega became the only NASA approved watch brand.
Lineage (from 1957 – 1978)
The CK2915, notice the 'broad arrow' hands, steel bezel, and 'straight lug' case.

The First 'Speedy' CK2915 (1957 - 1959)

While the Speedmaster is known to most as the “Moon Watch”, its life began completely unintended for space exploration. Omega introduced the first ‘Speedy’ in 1957 (reference CK2915) as a racing and sports chronograph, which also complemented Omega’s position as the official time keeper of the Olympic Games, and completed their range of professional tool watches in addition to the CK2913 Seamaster (dive watch) and CK2914 Railmaster (aviation watch).

From a technical point, Omega used the Manual wound, colum-wheel chronograph caliber 321, which was developed in collaboration with Lemania, and featured an antimagnetic cover and shock-protection. It was also the first watch to feature a tachymeter scale for calculating speed on its steel bezel, rather than on the dial. The CK2915 also had very distinct hands known as the ‘Broad Arrow.’ With only two years in production (1957-1959), the next step in the evolution of the Speedmaster took away some of these subtle details, making the CK2915 (in all original condition) a grail watch for Omega collectors. On the market today, an all original CK2915 could fetch anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000 USD as it did at Christie’s Omega Speedmaster 50 auction back in 2015.

The CK2998 (1959 - 1962)

Introduced in 1959, the CK2998 represents the second iteration of the Speedmaster. And while it was technically the same watch, it came with some improvements and aesthetic changes. The steel bezel was replaced by a black anodized aluminum insert to increase the legibility of the tachymeter scale. The case size was also made slightly bigger, from 39mm to 40mm, to accommodate the new bezel. O-ring gaskets around the pushers to improve water-resistance were added, and the hands were changed from ‘broad arrow’ hands to ‘Alpha’ hands. The CK2998 was also the first ‘Speedy’ that went to space when astronauts Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper wore their personal CK2998s during the Mercury 8 and 9 missions in 1962.

The CK2998, notice the change in hands to the 'alpha' hands, the black anodized aluminum insert, and 'straight lug' case.
NASA and the Speedmaster
A NASA inspected and certified Speedmaster ref. ST 105.012 from 1963.

The Speedmaster started to get the attention from NASA after astronaut Wally and Gordon’s Mercury missions. With some persuading from Wally, NASA began to recognize the dangers of astronauts using ‘personal’ tools on missions, and the need for an officially certified watch that could operate in extreme conditions. This task was taken up by a young NASA engineer James H. Ragan, who procured watches from four brands through their distributors in the US, including Longines-Wittnauer, Rolex, Hamilton, and Omega (the companies were actually not aware of what was going on as NASA did not contact them directly). Of the four brands, Hamilton submitted a pocket-watch chronograph that was immediately disqualified as it did not meet the wrist-watch specification. The watches from the three brands underwent a series of tests known as the “Qualification Test Procedure” which included the following:

The 11 different tests that NASA performed on the Speedmaster.
Some of the mission-worn Speedmasters, including Wally Schirra's personal CK2998, a ST 145.012, and a ST 105.003.
The testing lasted from October 1964 to March 1965 and, at the end of the day, the Speedmaster was the only watch that passed all the tests and was declared operational for space exploration and flight-certified by NASA.

The true test, however, came in April of 1970 when the crew of Apollo 13 “had a problem”. Halfway to the Moon, their oxygen tank had exploded during a routine procedure, which left the command module catastrophically damaged. Losing power, the crew had to abandon their moon landing, and fight to make it back home. To conserve what little power they had, everything was shut down, which meant that the crew had to rely on their watches and chronograph function to time various maneuvers and course corrections. Commander Jim Lovell, portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13, and astronauts Fred Haise and Frank Swigert received a hero’s welcome when they successfully splashed down on Earth. The incident reiterated the importance and worth of the Speedmaster as a life and death tool for space exploration.
The crew of Apollo 13 receiving a hero's welcome after safely returning to Earth. The Speedmaster was recognized as an important tool in getting them back home.
The ST 105.003 aka 'Ed White,' notice the 'baton' hands, and signature diamond tip and water-drop shaped counterweight on the chronograph seconds hand.

The ST 105.002 / ST 105.003, (1963 – 1965)

Replacing the CK2998, the third iteration of the Speedmaster came in 1963 with the ST 105.002 and ST 105.003. Again, the watches were technically very similar to their predecessor, but saw another aesthetic change from ‘Alpha’ hands to the current style ‘Baton’ hands. The chronograph seconds hand was also changed to the more familiar diamond shaped tip with water-drop shaped counter weight. For this particular reference, various bezel inserts such as the pulsometer (to calculate heart beats), and telemeter (to calculate distance) were available. While the CK2998 had been the first ‘Speedy’ to go to space, it was the the ST 105.003 that underwent official testing by NASA (as mentioned earlier). In 1965, the ST 105.003 became the first watch worn in the vacuum of Space when astronaut Ed White performed the first American spacewalk while wearing his newly qualified ‘Speedy.’ Consequently, the ST 105.003 is also known as the ‘Ed White.’

Astronaut Ed White performing the first American spacewalk. On his wrist wrapped around his space suit, the ST 105.003.
Astronaut Ed White preparing for launch. Clearly visible on his wrist is the ST 105.003.

The ST 105.012 “The Moon Watch” (1963 – 1966) and ST 145.012 (1967 - 1968)

Introduced around the same time as the ST 105.002 and 105.003 in 1963, the reference ST 105.012 is perhaps the most significant reference in the Speedmaster lineage (excluding the CK2915) for two reasons. First, it is the ‘Speedy’ worn by Neil and Buzz on the moon, and so it is technically THE watch that went to the Moon. Second, it represents a transitional point between the old and new Speedmasters with one defining characteristic: the new and improved case. Prior to the ST 105.012, all Speedmasters had what is called a ‘straight lug’ case that exposed the crown and pushers, increasing the chances of damage from contact with other objects. In addressing this issue, Omega created an asymmetrical design of the sides with faceted lugs called ‘Lyre lugs’ that also acted as protection for the crown and pushers. The case size was also increased from 40mm to 42mm, and it is the distinct case shape that has come to define the Speedmaster ever since. To note this major change, Omega also included the line ‘PROFESSIONAL’ to the dial, and the watch became formally known as the Omega Speedmaster Professional. In 1967, Omega re-referenced the ST 105.012 to ST 145.012, which was the last reference to use the coveted caliber 321. It is important to note that Omega supplied NASA with the ST 105.012 and the ST 145.012 during the Apollo missions.

The ST 105.012 'Moon Watch,' notice the new case style with 'lyre lugs' and the 'Professional' line on the dial.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the command module of Apollo 11. On his wrist, the ST 105.012.
The ST 145.022, the last of the 'vintage' Speedmasters. Notice the printed Omega symbol on the dial as opposed to the applied Omega symbol used in all previous Speedmasters.

The ST 145.022 The last of the “vintage” Speedmasters (1968 – 1978)

In 1968 came the next evolution of the Speedmaster with the ST 145.022. On the outside, it looked exactly the same as the ST 145.012 but had one significant difference: the movement. Omega decided to use the Newly developed..... manually wound, cam-operated chronograph caliber 861, as opposed to the column-wheel movement like the caliber 321. And while the merits of the caliber 861 over the caliber 321 should be left for another discussion, it is must be said that, for vintage Omega collectors, the Speedys with the caliber 321 are more sought after than those with the caliber 861. There was also a subtle change in the dial with the printed Omega symbol as opposed to the applied Omega symbol present in all previous Speedmasters. The ST 145.022 also represented the last of the “vintage” Speedmasters and every iteration thereafter saw slight improvements to the movement with the likes of the caliber 863 to the modern caliber 1861 and so on.

Other notable Speedy mentions

In Omega’s pursuit to develop the space watch, many other interesting Speedmasters were introduced, some in collaboration with NASA known as the ALASKA project, and others as tribute to achievements made in space.
Speedmaster 60th Anniversary Event

As this year marks the 60th anniversary of the first Speedmaster launched in 1957, The Swatch Group Trading and Omega (Thailand) is holding an exclusive exhibition to celebrate the Speedmaster’s legacy on August 24th at Central Embassy. The exhibition will showcase 12 memorable models straight from the Omega Museum Collection and is divided into seven zones with each telling a unique story in the history of the Speedmaster. For diehard Omega and Speedmaster fans this is a great opportunity to see the evolution of the ‘Speedy’ starting with the CK2915 all the way up to the ST 105.012 used by Neil and Buzz on the Apollo 11 mission.
While many watch collectors tend to gravitate towards brands like Rolex, and rightly so considering its own achievements in pushing the boundaries of human exploration (e.g. the Rolex Explorer that went to Everest or the Rolex Submariners that accompanied the likes of Jacques Piccard and Cousteau to unfathomable depths of the oceans), it is important to remember that it was the Omega Speedmaster that literally took us out of this world!