Science & Tech

In First Man, Look for the Moonwatch That Almost Wasn’t

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, July 20, 1969, photographed by Neil Armstrong. (NASA)
The device Buzz Aldrin wore on the lunar surface was almost pulled from the space program by protectionists.

There’s a piece of essential astronaut equipment that dates back to 1957 and is still used today. Ed White had one on his wrist when he went on the first-ever spacewalk on the Gemini 4 mission. When the ship’s timer failed in the Apollo 13 disaster, the Omega Speedmaster watch that Jack Swigert was wearing proved critical in timing engine burns, which allowed the module to get safely to Earth. And when the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, photographed the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, Aldrin had a Speedmaster strapped onto his spacesuit. (Armstrong had left his watch in the module, because the clock there was malfunctioning.) When you watch the film First Man, keep an eye out for the watch, which the space program almost pulled.

In 1964, NASA reached out to ten manufacturers, both foreign and domestic, requesting a chronograph (a watch with a built-in stopwatch) to test for the space program. The one American respondent, Hamilton, was immediately disqualified because it sent in a pocket watch, which astronauts would not be able to use. The other American manufacturers seemed uninterested in pursuing the contract.

Of the remaining watches, all of which were Swiss imports, only the Omega survived the brutal battery of tests designed by NASA engineer James Ragan, which included extreme high and low temperatures, heavy impacts from all sides, extreme pressure, and vibration. In an interview last year, Ragan explained that he wanted the tests to be as rigorous as possible, because additional diligence on Earth would prove critical out in the unknown. “Where it paid dividends was Apollo 13,” he noted.


After the success of the Apollo 11 landing, Omega added an inscription to the caseback of every Speedmaster (now called the “Speedmaster Professional” in recognition of the lunar mission) that reads: Flight-Qualified by NASA for all Manned Space Missions: The First Watch Worn on the Moon. A lofty claim — and a coup for their marketing — but Omega earned the status fairly. The watch was not purpose-built for aviation or designed in any sort of government committee. As a chronograph, it had been released to cater to the burgeoning market of auto enthusiasts who wanted to time their laps. But it proved to be the right tool for a very different job.

Senators Stuart Symington (R., Mo.), Margaret Chase Smith (R., Maine), and John Stennis (D., Miss) chaired a 1964 hearing on the use of the domestic watch industry in space and defense projects. Bulova (then a major American watchmaker) had managed to retain the former assistant secretary of defense to argue their case, but this did not affect the use of the Speedmaster in space applications. In fact, Bulova was one of the ten companies NASA approached that same year to provide a watch for testing, but Bulova refused at the time. However, when Apollo 17, the final mission, approached in 1972, Bulova began a campaign to get the Omega pulled in favor of its own products; the pitch included a letter to the special assistant to the president, citing the 1933 Buy American Act. Nearly a decade after refusing a fair, competitive process for the contract, Bulova invoked the government’s power to kill its foreign competitor.

(I should note here that, despite the perception today that Swiss watches are luxury items, this was not the case at the time. There was a strong English and American tradition of watchmaking, and local watches were widely worn. Indeed, brands such as Rolex and Omega were affordable enough that they were sold on military bases.)

Realizing the challenge, Omega found American manufacturers to partner with, including the (now-defunct) Starr Watch Case Company in Michigan, which would make the case for the moon watches, and the Hamilton Watch Company in Pennsylvania, which would inspect and test the watches. Though some stages of manufacturing still took place in Switzerland, most of the watch components were made in the United States — enough to push the watch over the 51 percent American-made requirement stipulated by the legislation.

Historian Kesaharu Imai, in his research on the space program (digitized by Worn & Wound), revealed that Bulova was confident that it would succeed, simply because it was an American company. That gave the company political capital, which was only enhanced by the lobbying of Senator Jacob Javits (R., N.Y.), who appealed directly to NASA’s administrator. Ironically, since Bulova did not have an American-made chronograph, the company ordered a number of models from its Swiss subsidiary, Universal Genève. When confronted with this fact, Bulova insisted that its R&D budget in the U.S. ought to qualify the imports as American-made; remarkably, this tactic worked. (The use of legislation to hurt a competitor with rules “for thee, but not for me” has been around for a very long time.) While Bulova’s hunch that it could get around the legislation proved accurate, the watches it ultimately provided to NASA failed the tests and were more expensive than the Omega to boot. With that, the jig was up.

The Buy American Act is still in effect, alongside countless provisions with the same aim, and President Trump has pushed for tough enforcement. But the phrase “produced in the United States” does not have a consistent definition (as seen in the case of Bulova’s sale of a Swiss watch as “American”), which makes compliance difficult or even impossible.

A Heritage Foundation study by Tori Whiting, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that the increase in domestic-content requirements has accompanied a downtick in the steel-producing sector. Indeed, this policy push seems to be hurting American manufacturers. Removing these requirements would let American companies focus their resources on what they do best. The Italian Beretta 92FS is the standard service pistol of the U.S. military, for instance, and its potential replacement is the German SIG Sauer P320; neither have made the armed forces any less American.

NASA’s certification has served as something of a time capsule for the Omega Speedmaster. Because it was certified in its 1960s form (and again in 1972, after the challenge from Bulova), the watch today is essentially the same as it was then, in continuous production. In an age when re-releases have become popular, it stands out. This has given it a totemic quality, making watch enthusiasts of space nerds, and NASA historians of horologists. (After fans re-created the NASA strap for the watch, based on the original specifications, Omega started providing one with the watch.) You can’t go into a store and buy a new 3M M23, the tape recorder used for the Beatles’ White Album, or a 1968 Mustang Fastback, as featured in the film Bullitt. But to this day, the Speedmaster Professional is still sold, more or less just as it was when Apollo 11 landed, while the world looked on.


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