From the first watch in space to the first on the moon, interstellar travel is inextricably linked to watch history. Let’s dig into this fascinating relationship.
Watches serve as a specific kind of artifact. When you’re wearing one, I think it becomes a sort-of living artifact that subtly exhibits your personality.
Of course, many of us wear them for far less deep reasons. But, whether or not you realize it, when you’re picking a watch based on specific functionalities or looks, it does say something about who you are — or who you aspire to be.
This is why watch world stories and lore are such an asset to a timepiece’s image and functions. Perhaps no story has shaped the watch world than man’s quest to explore outer space — the last frontier.
The first watch in space was doing more than just hitching a ride. You have to remember that there were real, consequential needs for watches once upon a time. This is especially so in the worlds of science and travel (Apollo 13 anyone?).
History of Watches in Space: The First to Fly
Google “first watch in space” and most of the results will come back with the Strela. Of course, the Strela is one of the most important watches in the space explorers club.
However, going straight to this story ignores the fact that another watch walked, so the Strela could run.
Though its wearer never left his spacecraft, the first watch in space is a Sturmanskie. It was worn by Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union when he was launched into the cosmos in April of 1961.
The Sturmanskie itself was developed by the Moscow Watch Factory in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. It was meant for use in the Soviet Air Force, starting the tradition of leveling up pilot watches and racing watches to cosmic adventurer status.
The 17-jewel Sturmanskie that Gagarin wore featured a straight-forward three-hand dial with syringe hours and minutes, as well as a red second hand. It looks a bit like an old-school traditional Flieger.
Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov wore the famed Strela watch during a space walk on June 12, 1965. This made that two-register chronograph the first timepiece taken outside of a spacecraft experiencing true, open space. Of course, this wouldn’t be the last chrono to do this.
The Strela was also the first chronograph to be mass-produced in the Soviet Union. It flaunted a highly-legible white dial, now legendary, and a second hand that ran continuously.
Basically, despite its lack of lume, it was a technical innovation before it became a last frontier hero.
Alexi Leonov piloted the Voskhod-2 ship with commander Pavel Belyayev. Leonov spent a full 12 minutes outside of the spacecraft.
Since no legend is complete without drama and adventure, Leonov’s suit ended up ballooning. When he got back into the ship, he performed a risky pressure reducing hatch squeeze.
He, and the Strela, made it back alive.
Important Astronaut Watches
While these Soviet models headed into space before any others did, other intergalactic firsts continued to transpire after them. Some of these firsts were achieved by an American astronaut or two.
Oh, and quick terminology lesson: Cosmonauts are of the Russian Space Agency, while astronauts are certified by NASA. So, Leonov and Gagarin were both cosmonauts. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are astronauts.
Here are some important astronaut timepieces worth noting!
The Breitling Navitimer Reference 809 was the first Swiss watch taken into space. It was worn by exploration legend Scott Carpenter, who’s as celebrated for his space adventures as he is for his underwater ones.
On May 5, 1961, the Mercury Seven started their mission to become the first Americans in space. All seven of these men accomplished the set feat. Carpenter was one of them, and he was clad in his Breitling, now appropriately called the Cosmonaute watch.
Breitling actually modified his Navitamer based on requests directly from Carpenter. Did I mention that he was also an aeronautical engineer? Several updates were made including widening the bezel so that it could be operated with space gloves on.
Carpenter and this new Cosmonaute version of the Navitamer circled earth three times before coming back home.
The Omega Speedmaster
An absolute surprise to no one, the Omega Speedmaster’s inclusion to this story is due to its claim to fame. The Speedy is nicknamed the Moonwatch because it was the first timepiece worn on the moon.
To find their Moonwatch, NASA subjected several nominees to extreme testing, including pressure and temperature. This was in 1965. The Speedmaster won the race for space, beating out other notable models including the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.
A fun fact not everyone knows is that the Speedy actually went into space before all of this went down. During the Sigma 7 mission in 1962, Astronaut Walter Schirra wore a Speedmaster.
In 1965, Gus Grissom and John Young wore NASA-approved Speedmasters during the Gemini 3 mission. Soon after, the Speedy would pull off a space walk, on the wrist of Ed White, during Gemini 4. Then, of course, in 1969, Buzz Aldrin’s Speedy would be the first watch on the moon.
The close call during the Apollo 13 mission would have been a true tragedy if not for Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster. After the ship’s oxygen tank exploded, the only way for the team to get back to earth alive was to flawlessly time the engine’s burn.
Swigert, and his Moonwatch, managed to do this, surviving the collision with earth’s atmosphere.
And yes, that is a Speedy on Tom Hanks’ wrist in Hollywood’s retelling of this harrowing adventure.
NASA awarded Omega for its achievements in flight safety and mission success. This legendary chronograph has been part of all six moon landings.
To this day that black dial, black bezel, and mostly unchanged design is still one of Omega’s best and most important.
The Bulova Lunar Pilot
Whenever I spotlight space watches, I like to highlight the Speedmaster’s pinchitter. And that’s very literally what the Bulova Lunar Pilot is.
Despite being several price points below the Speedmaster today, it’s arguably one of its direct competitors. It certainly is when it comes to space travel cache. Here’s why.
In 1971, David Scott commanded the Apollo 15 mission. Of course, he was wearing his trusty Omega. In this situation though, it wasn’t so trusty.
When his Omega broke, he ended up using his Bulova for the entire mission’s timing needs. Bulova still markets this model as their own Moonwatch, with many watch lovers dubbing it “the other Moonwatch.”
The modern Lunar Pilot holds a special place in my heart because I love a good quartz piece. Bulova is known for its high-performance quartz calibers, making this model quintessential to the brand.
And though Bulova is now owned by Citizen, the design of their Moonwatch is 100% American. This heritage, along with its history with NASA, makes the Lunar Pilot a true pioneer when it comes to American space exploration.
Conclusion: Space Watches Today
Space watches are a go-to model for the classically minded. They have everything.
They’re mythical but also scientific. Since so many of them have roots in the race tracks, they’re also sporty. Practicalists love their similarities to pilot watches. These intergalactic sport watches cast a wide net, an even wider net than dives do in my opinion.
This is likely why so many different kinds of timepieces were taken to space.
Did you know that the Rolex GMT-Master was worn by astronauts? We associate it more with cosmopolitans than the cosmos, so who would’ve thought?
Meanwhile, German physicist, Reinhard Furrer, took his Sinn 140S to space during the 1985 Spacelab Mission D1.
And this entire legacy was started by the first watches in space, the Strela and the Sturmanskie.
Do you find horology’s relationship to space travel interesting? Interesting enough that you have your own space-associated timepieces? We love hearing from you so let us know. And for more watch histories and insight, subscribe to our newsletter!