It has now been exactly 50 years since a certain watch was worn on the surface of the Moon and to commemorate this rare event, the manufacturer is issuing a special model limited to only 5000 pieces. But it’s not Omega. It’s the Bulova Lunar Pilot Chronograph made in titanium with gold accents and a sapphire crystal for $995 USD.
On August 2, 1971 astronaut Commander David Scott of Apollo 15 discovered the crystal on his Omega Speedmaster Professional had shattered and fallen off sometime during his second EVA (extravehicular activity) on the lunar surface. The Omega had been tested to a temperature of 71oC but the mission recorded temperatures of more than 90oC which would soften the hesalite crystal of the Omega1. Further temperature cycling as the astronauts moved from daylight into shade and back likely caused differential warpage and the crystal to pop off. The same event occurred to astronaut Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 and his watch ultimately failed with the ingress of lunar dust into the movement. Fortunately, Scott had brought a backup watch – a prototype Bulova Chronograph (non Accutron) reference number 88510/01, which he wore while driving the Lunar Rover on the very last EVA. Apparently both Aldrin and Armstrong had also carried their own personal watches for this very contingency.
What is fascinating and makes this much more of a story is that Scott agreed to evaluate both a Bulova stopwatch and chronograph wristwatch as a favor to the company, but did not obtain authorization from NASA to do so. NASA then withheld the name of the manufacturer to prevent commercialization of this action. Scott himself locked both timepieces in a safety deposit box and for decades, even as recent as 2014, apparently had forgotten the true name of the wristwatch manufacturer and often cited that it was a Waltham wristwatch. Other NASA documents from that period that inventoried the crew possessions refer to an Accutron Chronograph but no such model existed in the 1970-71 period. Finally, Scott decided to sell the watch at auction in 20152 and the first photos of the heavily abused watch fed further confusion, as did the reference number. Both did not resemble any existing Bulova watch models.
Bulova was insistent on wresting away Omega’s NASA monopoly by lobbying US Senators to enforce the 1933 “Buy America Act” since they were the only major US based watch manufacturer. Bulova had acquired the Swiss watch company Universal Geneve in 1967 and apparently they procured 16 prototype samples which may have been based on the UG Space Compax chronograph model given the similarity of the reference number (ref # 885104/02) but significantly altered to resemble the Omega and maintain a familiarity of usage with the astronauts. The watch is likely powered by a Valjoux 72 movement like that found in the Rolex Daytona. In the end, Bulova misunderstood the principles of the act since there ended up being very little actual US content in the prototypes whereas Omega made efforts to have its cases manufactured in the US and assembly performed there as well and ensured a legacy with NASA for decades.
You know that I’m always one for a bargain and there is no need to spend $1000. In fact the plain metal Bulova Lunar Pilot reissue has been available since 2018 and is the preferred model to acquire since it’s the one that most closest resembles Scott’s model.
The savings over an Omega ($5k) is considerable and does not diminish the NASA or Apollo connection at all. Although there is no mechanical movement, the quartz one operates at a frequency 8x higher than typical promising an accuracy of +/- 10 seconds … per year. This gives the sweeping second hand a fluidity of movement reminiscent of mechanical movements and those of its Accutron predecessors.
1 A Longines, a Rolex and an Omega were the only candidates chosen for testing.
High temperature: 48 hours at 71ºC under a pressure of 0.35 atm and relative humidity not over 15%.
Low temperature: Four hours at -18ºC.
Temperature-pressure: 0,000001atm and temperature raised to 71º C. Temperature then lowered to -18ºC in 45 minutes and again raised to 71ºC in 45 minutes. This cycle was repeated fifteen times.
Relative humidity: 240 hours in relative humidity of at least 95% and at temperatures varying between 20ºC and 71º C. The steam had a pH value of between 6.5 and 7.5.
Oxygen atmosphere: Exposure to 100% oxygen atmosphere at a pressure of 0.35atm and a temperature of 71ºC for 48 hours.
Shock: Six 11 millisecond shocks of 40g each in six different directions.
Acceleration: Linear acceleration from 1g to 7.25g within 333 seconds.
Decompression: 90 minutes in a vaccum of 0 10-6 atm and a temperature of 71ºC.
High pressure: Exposure to 1.6 atm for one hour.
Vibration: Three cycles of 30 minutes (lateral, horizontal and vertical), the frequency varying from 5 to 2000cps and back to 5cps in 15 minutes. Average acceleration per impulse 8.8g.
Acoustic noise: 130dB over a frequency range from 40 to 10000Hz for 30 minutes
The Omega Speedmaster gained 21 minutes during decompression test and lost 15 minutes during the acceleration test, the luminescence of the dial was lost during the test.
The Rolex Daytona stopped running on two occasions during the relative humidity test and during the high pressure test when the sweep second hand warped and pressed against the other hands.
The Longines Wittnauer had its crystal warped and disengaged during the high pressure test, same fault occurred during the decompression test.
2 The watch sold in October 2015 for $1.3 million ($1.625 million with buyer’s commission added in). Since the Omegas were all property of NASA, none of those watches have ever been sold so this represents the very first lunar watch sold.
The Pandemic 2020 Tokyo Olympics are over and despite all the difficulties, the Games were successfully produced and were a true Olympics in the very best tradition.
Omega has had an relationship with the IOC ever since the first games in 1932 and has been the official time keeper for every games except for a slight hiatus from 1996 to 2004. They produce a special timepiece to commemorate each and every Olympic Games.
One of my favourite games was the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics because despite some initial problems (including the unfortunate death of a luger during practice runs) the 2010 Games truly represented a peaceful international athletic competition where people from nearly a hundred countries descended onto Canada’s most beautiful city and could freely interact with each other and with Canadians or other visitors and freely go anywhere without visible and oppressive security measures. And Canada sealed its reputation as a Winter Olympic power by winning a record 14 Gold medals (26 total).
In six months time, the 2022 Winter Olympics will begin in Beijing, China.
It’s time for the Western NATO allies to consider boycotting these games. There is a precedent for this action as 65 countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the atrocities being committed by the Red Army against the civilian populace of Afghanistan.
China is guilty of many crimes, chiefly the persecution of the Muslim minority Uighyer population, the illegal antidemocracy crackdown on Hong Kong, and the blatant hostage taking of two Canadian citizens.
China intends to use the Olympics to showcase a false image of itself to the world and especially to its own people, much like Hitler did for the 1936 Olympics. There is no guarantee that even any visiting athlete would be safe if they should transgress any of many of China’s repressive laws.
If the NATO allies can present a united front, they will deprive much of the Winter competition and make the 2022 Beijing Olympics a hollow, laughable spectacle. How worthless is a Hockey Gold medal if neither Team USA or Team Canada participated? A united front would also demonstrate the resolve China would face in its continued expansionist ambitions.