In 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on the Apollo 13 spacecraft, throwing the ship off course and putting its crew into mortal danger. After instructing the astronauts to power down all but essential life support systems, mission control calculated the precise amount of time they’d need to fire the engines for re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. With the ship’s navigation equipment disabled, the fate of Apollo’s crew was in the hands of its pilot, who timed the burn on his watch, and landed the module safely back on earth. On returning home, the crew received a hero’s welcome. The timepiece, meanwhile, became an icon in its own right.
A stopwatch chronograph developed for timing motor races, Omega’s Speedmaster was one of four watches submitted to NASA as candidates for the Apollo program. As the only contender that survived the agency’s rigorous battery of tests, it was adopted as standard-issue for astronauts in 1965 and would faithfully serve astronauts on every Apollo mission and for decades to come. There’s now far more computing power in the average smartphone than there was in the entire Apollo spacecraft, but the appeal of those missions’ most famous instrument remains. More than half a century after it became the official watch of NASA, the “Speedy” as it is fondly nicknamed, continues to inspire a unique passion among watch buffs and space nerds alike.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this summer – and the Speedmaster’s historic role in it – Omega hosted a black-tie gala at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral. On hand were Apollo veterans Thomas Stafford and Charles Duke, as well as International Space Station Commander Terry Virts and ISS Flight Engineer Nicole Stott. George Clooney, an official Omega spokesman, made an appearance with his wife Amal, dining alongside astronauts beneath a massive Saturn V rocket. For all the star power in the room, however, most of the conversation still revolved around watches. Speedmaster collectors lucky enough to score an invitation came from around the world sporting their most prized possessions. There were original 1969 Speedys, matte black Speedys, gold Speedys and diamond-encrusted Speedys, all competing for attention with a selection of historic NASA artifacts on display.
Among the VIP invitees was Australian telecom executive Bhaskar Eswaran, who was sporting a pair of custom suspenders he made to display nine of his favourite Speedmasters. Eswaran’s collection numbers in the hundreds of pieces, he said, making him likely the world’s foremost enthusiast, at least by volume. Like many of the people in the room, his obsession with the Speedmaster began when he saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerge from the lunar lander in 1969. “I watched the moon landing on black and white TV in Sydney,” he said, adding that in addition to watches he also an enthusiastic collector of space memorabilia. “I’m on a whole other level of obsession,” he admitted with a mix of resignation and pride.
Because of the passion the watch inspires in collectors, Omega regularly releases new limited-editions of the Speedmaster, and for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing they are doubling down. The first of two new models, unveiled in Cape Canaveral is made from a proprietary “Moonshine” gold alloy with a burgundy bezel. A reproduction of a watch gifted to the Apollo astronauts and President Richard Nixon in 1969, it is limited to 1,014 individually numbered pieces and will be highly sought by collectors despite its $43,200 price tag. The second 2019 edition will be released later this year, limited to 6,969 pieces and featuring an image of Aldrin alighting from the lunar lander embossed in gold on its face. At $12,000, it’s a relative bargain. Engraved on the back, around the sapphire crystal window through which the Speedmaster’s Swiss movement steadily beats, is Armstrong’s famous quote, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
As with most Speedmaster special editions, they’ll be exceptionally difficult to buy, with most paid for and reserved before they even reach the boutique. Despite the Speedmaster’s legacy as an invaluable tool to the Apollo astronauts, its appeal to collectors has little do with with utility. To anyone passionate about watches, a piece like this is both a spectacular example of engineering and a stylish accessory. To its legion of fans, this isn’t just a watch but a symbol of humankind’s single greatest achievement, and the lengths we can travel when we set our sights on monumental goals.
Jeremy Freed travelled to Cape Canaveral as a guest of Omega. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.