By Kim Flyvbjerg
The Moon is an inexhaustible metaphor for romance, yet to science it is the symbol of space exploration. The Omega Speedmaster has served on every manned US spaceflight for the last 40 years – and is now set to reach for Mars.
The Moon shines on our childhood. In an old French legend set to music, the clown Pierrot asks the Moon to shine brightly so he can write a letter to his beloved Pierrette. Many children have fallen asleep to the glow of the nightlight – often a half-crescent with a wistful smiling face. The Moon is far away, yet so close. It is our confidante, no matter whether we verge on despair – or are over the Moon.
Orbiting the Moon
The musician and singer Sting lets love whirl him weightlessly through space in *Walking On the Moon, while in *Moon Over Bourbon Street he wards off inner demons. The Moon is pivotal in the romantic movie Moonstruck from 1987 starring Cher and Nicholas Cage, which virtually re-launched Dean Martin’s 1950s hit *That’s Amore, featuring one of the most quirky of homages to the man in the Moon: ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore!’ But Dean Martin is not the only crooner to have serenaded the Moon. In more recent years, Tony Bennett gave Danes call for romantic evenings with his own rendition of *Fly Me to the Moon, performed in the timeless Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen where the woeful Pierrot still yearns for his Pierrette at the open-air Pantomime Theatre.
A small step for man
But the moon has a darker side. While the arts hold the big cheese in the sky in romantic awe, the sciences have a far more down-to-earth view of our celestial neighbour. The Moon is the perfect stage on which to demonstrate the technological prowess of man – symbolised by the first lunar landing on 20 June 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong ventured his ‘small step for man but a giant leap for mankind’. The Apollo 11 crew – astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins – all carried an Omega Speedmaster: a precision Swiss watch on a customised black Velcro strap set out against the white space suit No gadgetry. No state-of-the-art gizmos, as you might think. In fact, the Omega Speedmaster was already a decade old. But that night in July when the world held its breath and the black-and-white TV screens relayed the historical news: ‘The Eagle has landed’, the Omega Speedmaster was instantly nicknamed The Moon Watch and became the most famous watch in the world – and possibly the universe. Today, the Omega Speedmaster is a design icon often compared with other classics, such as the Porsche 911, the Leica rangefinder camera and the Burberry trench coat. Born almost perfect with little more to add.
A classic is born
As the need for precision timekeeping within the sports gathered pace up through the 20th century, Omega became increasingly involved in events such as the Olympic Games. The Swiss watch company has been the official Olympic timekeeper since the 1932 Los Angeles Games – and they are ready for the Athens Olympic Games this summer. Omega designed their first wrist chronograph as early as 1913. Pilots during World War I wore Omegas, and in the 1930s Amelia Earhart – the legendary American daredevil of the sky – had an Omega dashboard clock. The Omega that joined the ultimate challenge in aviation – the race to space – reaches as far back as 1942. This is when the watchmaker genius, Albert Piguet, designed the clockwork that lies at the core of the Speedmaster technology, but it was not for another 15 years that the first chronograph with the name Omega Speedmaster left the workshop in Biel, Switzerland. Two years later, the design had been refined and a classic had been born – yet the potential of the chronometer was much greater than anyone had imagined.
Walk in space
Even before NASA officially embraced the Omega Speedmaster in March 1965, the watch had already achieved cult status among astronauts. One of the most experienced – Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra Jr – wore an Omega Speedmaster on his early Sigma 7 mission in 1962. Schirra’s Pan Am pilot colleagues had told him of the advantages of the watch – especially in the case of emergencies. The dial and hand design are easy to read, and the ease of operation makes it extremely reliable. In the run-up to the Gemini and Apollo missions, NASA launched an official hunt for the most reliable chronometer available. NASA officials hit downtown Houston and purchased a selection of watches from Corrigan’s Watch Store. By September 1964, just six brands were left in the race, but only Omega Speedmaster passed the strenuous test. The watch was boiled in 93°C/200 F hot water, only to be exposed in the next moment to temperatures of –18°C/0 F. It remained watertight at zero gravity and survived daylong pressure chamber sessions without noticeable deviation. There was next to no reaction from violent impact or vibration and it passed a wear test in an atmosphere of pure oxygen. But the final test came on 3 June 1965 when Edward H. White performed the first spacewalk as part of the Gemini IV mission – with the immaculate Speedmaster as companion. The Apollo 13 mission In 1970, the Omega Speedmaster came to the rescue at a perilous moment. On the third day of the doomed Apollo 13 mission – later adapted to the screen in the Hollywood blockbuster *Apollo 13 staring Tom Hanks – a vital oxygen tank exploded. ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem,’ was astronaut Jim Lovell’s famous understated message to mission control. A power failure forced the three astronauts to evacuate the mothership Odyssey and return to Earth onboard the ‘dog house’, as the small landing pod Aquarius was nicknamed, which only had oxygen supply for two men for a maximum of 45 minutes – they were three and were 90 hours from Earth… During this nerve-wracking rescue mission, the Speedmaster timed the fraction of a second the rocket needed to be fired to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere – within a time window of 14 seconds with a maximum 10% margin of error. Any slight deviation would have sent the vessel into the infinity of space! With only the ticking of their Omega watches breaking the dramatic silence, the crew successfully pulled away from lunar orbit and returned to Earth – saved by Omega. This performance earned Omega the *Snoopy Award – the highest honour awarded by astronauts to their suppliers. Select collector’s items The lunar landings were grounded in the 1970s, but Omega Speedmaster was proudly branded by both Russian and American space crews at the historical Apollo/Soyuz linkup in 1975. Ever since, the chronometer has been in service on all manned space expeditions from Skylab to the current Space Shuttle programme, but the Omega Speedmaster has continued to develop all along. The old models from before and around the time of the lunar landings are select collector’s items today – hard to come by and astronomically priced. For a short period in the 1970s, the Omega Speedmaster was produced with a digital display. And in the 1990s, the Omega Speedmaster Racing range was launched in the Ferrari colours of red and yellow. Finally, the Omega Speedmaster X-33 was introduced a few years ago – ready to conquer Mars, when man is ready.