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Remarkable clocks and watches: the first - and only - watch on the moon

The Omega Speedmaster Professional is the current version of the "Moon Watch". (in new window)

The Omega Speedmaster Professional is the current version of the "Moon Watch".© Omega

Since 1969 Omega has been able to promote its Speedmaster chronograph as the "first watch on the moon." NASA had chosen the Swiss-made timekeeper for all its astronauts four years earlier, so it was natural that Buzz Aldrin should have been wearing it when he took his momentous step onto the lunar surface.

Before NASA made its selection, the Speedmaster and its rivals were subjected to rigorous testing: simmered for hours at a temperature of 93 degrees Celsius (199°F), then immediately frozen at –18 (–0.5°F), left in pure oxygen for two days, struck, compressed, decompressed, vibrated... The Speedmaster was the only one to emerge well within the allowed deviation of 5 seconds per day.

What makes the Speedmaster so special?

A timepiece that goes into space faces challenges unknown on earth. The atmospheric pressure inside the watch might make the glass explode in conditions of near-zero gravity. The glass of the Speedmaster is fixed by a clamp ring able to withstand five times the pressure that it experiences in space. It is vital that the internal pressure should remain constant, otherwise the lubricating oil which adheres to the moving parts would leak, preventing the mechanism from working properly, and obscuring the glass. A vacuum inside the watch would also make the piece run much too fast: it would prevent the balance wheel (which regulates the movement of the gear train) from working properly. The glass itself is both thick enough and elastic enough to withstand the huge differences in temperature that it encounters during a space flight.

Speedmaster: there when it matters

The Speedmaster has been the timepiece of choice on 118 space missions, two polar expeditions and countless other pioneering ventures. It was the Speedmaster which timed the nail-biting 14 seconds it took the stricken Apollo 13 to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere back in 1970. Five years later, at the height of the Cold War, when the American Apollo spacecraft docked with the Russian craft, Soyuz, the Speedmaster was there. When the symbolic handshake took place between the two crews, it emerged that both sides were sporting a Speedmaster.

It might be hard to believe but by 2009 the Speedmaster will have been around for half a century.  And its success is set to continue.  In 2011 the Speedmaster will be used during the “Solar Impulse” expedition, when a pioneering plane endeavours to circumnavigate the globe, powered day and night by nothing but solar energy. The maiden flight is scheduled for some time in 2009.

Speedmaster: To infinity and beyond…

Not content to rest on its laurels, Omega is busily preparing for perhaps its greatest challenge to date – the development of a watch that could be used on the first Mars landing, scheduled for 2030. The conditions on the Red Planet are drastically different from those on Earth and on the Moon, with temperatures as low as 140 degrees Celsius (-220°F). It, therefore, will take an incredibly special kind of watch to deal with life on Mars.

But what happened to Buzz Aldrin's original moon watch? And why wasn’t Neil Armstrong wearing one?

Unfortunately Aldrin's watch disappeared in the early 1970s when it was being transported to the Smithsonian Institution, and its fate remains a mystery. There was much excitement in 2001 – and a flurry of claims of ownership – when a retired Californian sales clerk announced that he had bought the missing watch from a man who had picked it up on a Santa Barbara beach. But its authenticity could not be proved, and both NASA and Aldrin eventually decided it was not the Moon Watch.

As for Armstrong's watch, it did not leave the lunar module. The module's electronic counter had broken down, and Armstrong left his watch on board as a back-up.