On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud made history as the first Arab astronaut, first ever Muslim person and the first member of a royal family to travel to space. Aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-51-G) mission, Prince Sultan embarked on a journey that would inspire a generation of young Arabs and solidify his place in the annals of space exploration.
During the mission, the prince wore an Omega Speedmaster Professional chronograph, the legendary timepiece that has played a significant role in the history of space exploration. Also known as the "Moonwatch," the Speedmaster was officially certified by NASA for all manned space missions in 1965 and has since been part of every manned mission, including the first moon landing in 1969.
The Speedmaster's history goes back to 1957 when it was introduced as a sports and racing chronograph, complementing Omega's position as the official timekeeper for the Olympic Games.
The "Speedmaster" name was chosen for its tachymeter scale bezel and following the Omega convention used for other models like the Seamaster - initially the Speedmaster was part of the Seamaster line - and the Railmaster.
This first Speedmaster model - reference CK 2915 also known as the "Broad Arrow"- was designed by the Swiss Claude Baillod and was already featuring some of the hallmarks of the model: the triple-register chronograph layout, the high-contrast index markers, and the domed Plexiglas crystal. The dial was an example of perfect balance and proportions. The model had straight lugs, broad arrow hands and the bezel was in steel with engraved black print. The case diameter was 39 mm.
The solo-flight Mercury space programme was almost completed (the astronaut Wally Schirra had worn his own Speedmaster ref. CK 2998 on his Mercury flight on the 3rd of October, 1962) and NASA was preparing for the Gemini (two-man) and Apollo (three-man) missions. The astronauts on these missions were expected to move about in space outside the ship so they needed a wristwatch which could withstand the difficult conditions of space.
Beginning in about 1962, NASA anonymously purchased a series of chronographs of different brands, with the task of finding the best watch available for their astronauts to wear in space.
In 1964, the watches satisfying all pre-requirements were officially purchased by NASA and subjected to a series of tests and pre-selection processes called the “Qualification Test Procedures”. Only three watches out of six chronographs successfully survived this arduous pre-selection phase. The finalists were then subjected to 11 different tests - the most rigorous trials endured in the history of horology:
1. High temperature: 48 hours at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) followed by 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C).
2. Low temperature: 4 hours at a temperature of 0°F (-18°C).
3. Temperature-Pressure: 15 cycles of heating to 71°C for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to -18°C for 45 minutes at 10−6 atm.
4. Relative humidity: 240 hours at temperatures varying between 68°F and 160°F (20°C and 71°C) in a relative humidity of at least 95%.
5. Oxygen atmosphere: 48 hours in an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at a pressure of 0.35 atm.
6. Shock: Six shocks of 40 G, each 11 milliseconds in duration, in six different directions.
7. Acceleration: From 1 G to 7.25 G within 333 seconds, along an axis parallel to the longitudinal spacecraft axis.
8. Decompression: 90 minutes in a vacuum of 10-6 atm at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) and 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C).
9. High pressure: 1.6 atm for a minimum period of one hour.
10. Vibration: Three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz.
11. Acoustic noise: 130 db over a frequency range of 40 to 10,000 Hz, duration 30 minutes.
On March 1, 1965, the test results were completed and only the Omega Speedmaster passed. At the time, NASA’s testers wrote, "Operational and environmental tests of the three selected chronographs have been completed; and, as a result of the test, Omega chronographs have been calibrated and issued to three members of the Gemini Titan III crews."
James Ragan, the NASA engineer responsible for the qualification tests, has spoken about the importance of the Speedmaster by saying, “The watch was a backup. If the astronauts lost the capability of talking to the ground, or the capability of their digital timers on the lunar surface, then the only thing they had to rely on was the Omega watch they had on their wrist. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.”
Surprisingly, Omega only learned about the Speedmaster’s journey into space after seeing a photograph of Ed White taken during America’s first spacewalk as part of the Gemini 4 mission in June of 1965. The watch was attached to the arm via a long nylon strap secured with Velcro.
Following the discovery, Omega decided to add the word "Professional" to the product name, thus becoming Omega Speedmaster Professional. The new reference number was 145.012.
On the 20th of July, 1969 the first manned lunar landing was certainly one of the most dramatic scientific achievements in human history. Neil Armstrong was the first to step onto the moon’s surface. Since the electronic timing system on the Lunar Module was not functioning correctly, Armstrong had left his watch aboard as a reliable backup. Nineteen minutes later he was joined by Buzz Aldrin, who was wearing his Omega Speedmaster Professional, the first watch worn on the moon. It was a Omega Speedmaster Professional with a Caliber 321 movement. A few months after this mission, Buzz's watch was stolen and never returned.
We referred to Mr. Alex Ghotbi, Head of Continental Europe and Middle East at Phillip’s Auctions to find out if any of these original Nasa watches made it to the auctions circle: “I don’t believe any of these were actually sold publicly as are property of the US government and can’t be sold by the wearer.” He then added that the original watches of the same model worn in the 1990s in the Russian MIR Mission did make their way to the auctions, like this piece sold by Phillips for around 100,000 USD!
In 1969, in tribute to the moon landing heroes, Omega created the Speedmaster BA145.022. This model was crafted from 18K yellow gold and included a rare burgundy bezel, as well as an inscription on the caseback that read, “to mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time.”
This gold Speedmaster housed the caliber 861 and was Omega’s very first commemorative numbered edition, with only 1,014 models being produced from 1969 to 1973. The very first of these was created for US President, Richard Nixon, with number two allocated to the US Vice President Spiro Agnew. These watches, however, were later returned to Omega due to the US government’s strict gifting protocol. Model numbers 3 - 28 were given to the NASA astronauts. Watches 29 to 32 were offered to Swiss watch industry leaders and politicians, without any engraved number. The public were given the opportunity to purchase model numbers 33 - 1000.
As space exploration continued to break through new frontiers, the Omega Speedmaster Professional was again selected by NASA in 1978 as its official chronograph for the new Space Shuttle program following a new series of harsh tests. The Speedmaster was later subjected to additional grueling tests on board the Russian space station MIR between July 1993 and July 1994. The success of these exceptional endurance tests was attested by a certificate initiated by the MIR crew. The Omega Speedmaster Professional has become the most tested watch in the world.
Omega is currently designing a Speedmaster capable of accompanying man on a mission, planned for 2030, to Mars where temperatures range from -133°C to 27°C.
After more than 60 years, the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch remains one of the most iconic chronographs ever designed.