Despite the Speedmaster model having been officially declared qualified for manned spaceflight by NASA in 1965 (1), Omega confirmed the willingness to further develop watches which would resist the different aversive facets of working in space.
The project for these developments at the Omega facility was internally codenamed ‘Alaska’. This codename is in the continuity of Omega using names of ‘locations’ for secret watch projects and names of ‘birds’ for secret movement development projects (24). This ‘Alaska’ project was over time subdivided into four entities each dedicated to develop new or ameliorate existing watches for the use in space related missions. The watch development during the decade following the beginning of the project was adapted to the dynamics of NASA’s space program, going from the lunar surface requirements during the Apollo missions, through the introduction of geostationary laboratories and reusable space vehicles. Along the adaptation to NASA’s mission dynamics, Omega also made sure to integrate pertinent horological advancements into the new developments and to test for their suitability in space.
Alaska I , 1968 – 1969: Lunar Surface Chronograph
The ‘Alaska I’ project was initiated for developing a ‘Lunar Surface Chronograph‘. Omega was approached in 1968 by the NASA engineer James ‘Jim’ H. Ragan (2), who wanted to develop a chronograph able to withstand the extreme heat and cold transitions while working on the lunar surface.
The first series of prototypes still retained a black dial (2) but to be able to deal with the extreme heat on the lunar surface, the dial of the second iteration of ‘Alaska I’ prototypes is silvered and matte to allow for maximal heat reflection without disturbing light reflections
Introduction of ‘fancy’ shaped Hands
Many have wondered about the fancy shape of the sub-dial hands introduced during the development of the Alaska I prototype. The technical explanation is, that for better visibility the chronograph hands are red and the sub-dial hands are partially broad shaped to be perfectly visible even when submitted to strong vibrations (2). Regular thin and straight hands would blur when exposed to vibrations (2). The question remains about the origin of the specific shape which was chosen.
Admittedly, the hands show resemblance with the space modules NASA used, beginning with the ‘Mercury’ and also the contemporary ‘Apollo’ command module, but there is neither a functional nor an aesthetic reason to use space module shaped hands. Moreover, the contour of the hands does not correspond exactly to the shapes of these or other spacecrafts.
The explanation for the use of this exact shape for sub-dial hands during the Alaska I project might thus be found elsewhere. We should look for further inspiration within another project Omega was simultaneously involved and which would revolutionise commercial air-fair.
1969 was not only the year men walked on the moon, also another technical challenge would be finalised, where British and French engineers would cooperate to develop the first commercial supersonic airplane.
The 2.3.1969 was a great day for European commercial aviation. The Concorde prototype #001 would perform its maiden flight lasting 28 minutes. Despite avoiding to retract the carriages, to align the adjustable ‘nose’ or to go supersonic, Concorde’s maiden flight was a success. To ensure precise timekeeping, which is crucial during test flights, Omega equipped the Concorde #001 prototype and the other 8 Concorde prototype dashboards with six instruments each. Indeed, following a call for tenders from Sud-Aviation in 1967, Omega was chosen over its Swiss, French and American competitors to supply the time instruments for the future Franco-British supersonic aircraft. Developed within a year by Claude Villars’ Scientific Research engineers, they met a series of very stringent requirements in terms of thermal resistance, humidity, pressure, vibrations, accelerations and shocks. Additional tests were also carried out in salt spray atmospheres, under the effect of various contaminants and even under the effect of attack by certain fungi. Omega would remain the ‘timekeeper’ also for the first 2 (of 14) commercially built ‘presidential’ Concorde’s. (25, 27).
The fancy hands used during the Alaska I and later also during the Alaska II project seem exact, schematic reproductions of the shape of Concorde. Maybe the engineers working on the Alaska I project wanted to commemorate Omega’s involvement in the development of the first and hitherto only European commercial supersonic airplane.
The Case Construction
The watch was initially planned for having a titanium case, which for economic reasons was soon discarded in favour of the case used for the Speedmaster Mark II introduced in 1969. Another innovation was the introduction of an outer protective case made out of anodised aluminium (3).
After testing, a red anodisation was chosen due to the colours high reflectiveness and superior resistance to heat (3). The Swiss patent for this outer case was granted in 1971, the US Patent was filed in 1972 and obtained in 1973.
Ragan would have preferred a case mounted with a Hesalite crystal, as this material does not shatter when destroyed and had proven to be resistant during the tests for qualification of the Speedmaster in 1965. However, the mineral crystal of the Mark II case had proven to seal better against leaks and to withstand impacts without cracking (2).
Another difference to the previous ‘lyre-lugged’ Speedmasters was the lacking external bezel. Omega confirmed, that Ragan would have anyway envisioned to replace the tachymeter scale with more pertinent scales, such as one with 5 min intervals (1). Latter change will be implemented into the ‘Alaska II’ prototypes. As can be seen in the picture above, there is a gap visible between the dial and the case. This is due to the use of smaller dials made for the ‘titanium’ prototype version, which had a rather large rehaut. As this large rehaut is lacking in the Mark II cases (has a smaller, internal counter-ring against the dial) the dial is too small for this case type and does not fit properly.
A New Movement
The movement chosen for these prototypes was the newly introduced cal.: 861, which received a fine tuning and newly developed lubricants which would ensure perfect functioning even in the extreme condition of space (2).
4 watches of the ‘Alaska I’ project where sent to NASA for testing, two with white dial and two with black dial and all white hands (retaining the ‘Concorde’ shaped sub-dial hands, (1)). NASA decided not to replace the ‘regular’ Speedmaster model already qualified for Astronauts.
Alaska II , 1972: Functional optimisations
After the successful moon landing in 1969 Omega continued its quest for the perfect moon watch, also by further developing the ‘Alaska I’ prototypes. The former case designs were dropped and the classic lyre-lugged Speedmaster case was reintroduced.
As a new feature the whole case was sandblasted and thus rendered matte to avoid distracting reflections from the case. The tachymeter bezel was regarded useless in space and was replaced by a 5 min interval bezel as already envisioned during the ‘Alaska I’ prototyping.
The silver / white dial was further enhanced and the ‘Concorde’ shaped sub-dial hands are now black and extended to the seconds hand. One important feature, which will be used for the ‘Alaska III’ prototypes was the introduction of the ‘radial’ numbering on the sub-dial for better readability.
Again, NASA decided not to replace the ‘regular’ Speedmaster model already qualified for Astronauts. Later this version would become the inspiration for the Alaska model issued in 2008.
Alaska III , 1974 – 1978: Functional optimisations, E.V.A. Chronograph
The last Apollo mission with a man walking on the moon surface was Apollo XVII, which was terminated in December 1972. After this date it was clear, that no man would touch the lunar surface again for many decades (NASA announced it for 2030).
A new era of space exploration would start, focusing on the building of permanent space stations in geostationary orbit and the development or re-usable space ships for building and supplying these stations. The start into this new adventure was made by the Russians in 1971, by putting the space station ‘Salyut’ into orbit. The Americans followed in 1973 with ‘Skylab’, while the definitive ‘conquest’ of near earth orbital space was achieved by the co-joint American and Russian Apollo-Soyuz project in 1975 (20).
Around 1976 the ‘Space Shuttle’ project, started to become more than just a drawing-board reality, and with the new craft came the need for all NASA-equipment to be re-evaluated, re-tested and eventually re- qualified (5). When Omega began to work on the ‘Alaska III’ project the goal was to modify the classic moonwatch to create an enhanced version with better readability. In the early phase of the ‘Alaska III’ project it was clear that newly developed movements could replace cal.: 861. With the introduction of the automatic movement cal.: 1040 and its successor cal.: 1045 it was now possible to have automatic driven chronographs. Other prototypes even feature an electromechanical movement, cal.: 1255.
At the same time a new case shape was featured (see discussion below). This ‘ref: 1100x series’ was used to check for the compatibility of automatic and electronic movements and possibly for a specific use in space. Ref.: 11000 watches were started to be made around 1974 and some were used for heavy material resistance testing. These tests performed by Omega and the EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) subjected the watches to very high levels of abuse to determine their robustness and their reliability.
Despite experimenting with the compatibility of new movements, the main overall goals during the ‘Alaska III’ project was to reduce reflexions from the case and to increase the readability of the dial (9). During the development a reintroduced feature from the ‘Alaska II’ project revolutionised the readability of the dial: The ‘radial’ numerals.
The Radial Dial
Although the use of a chronograph dial featuring counters with numbers in radial layout dates from 1966, for the Seamaster ref.: 145.006, the first encounter with the radial configuration for a Speedmaster was a drawing given to Omega by James Ragan, as confirmed in an interview in 2017 (23). It is unkown, if Ragan was inspired by the dial of the Seamaster, but the similarities are undeniable. The Speedmaster radial dial had gone through several improvements since its inception during the Alaska II project. Apart from slight changes in the font and indexes, in some instances by adding or removing serifs for certain numbers, also the orientation of the numbers was changed and adapted. The timeline concerning the changes seems not to be linear, as a technical drawing from 1972 (see above) already shows the configuration used later in the Alaska III project (18).
The criteria for changing number orientation, indexes and font details is hypothesised to have been a combination of light reflection tests and personal preferences of the developers concerning the readability of the dial (18).
The 1100x Case
It was quite peculiar, that the case shape used for watches conceived for use in space would change again during Alaska III, after the lyre lugged case was qualified for spaceflight in 1965 and alternative case shapes were gradually abandoned during Alaska I and II. The new specific requirements for the case design seemingly gravitated towards a ‘protrusion free’ overall watch surface, so to minimise the protrusion of the pushers and the crown as well as featuring hidden lugs without compromising function. The protrusion of the pushers and the crown having already been a problem with the first Speedmaster version used during the ‘Gemini’ program (23). Latter considerations would lead to the use of the unusual 1100x case for many Alaska III prototypes, as it fulfils most of the mentioned features (18, 19).
One further feature which can also be seen when scrutinising modern spaces suits but also the design of space vehicles and modules, was the growing use of ‘integrated design’. In this context this design method is most important for the interdisciplinary development of space equipment, which requires the integration of functional elements using the least amount of room and resources and ideally requiring the least intervention by the Astronauts. This new principle was also applied for the watch design as at some point it was envisioned to wear the watch as integral part of the spacesuit, hence attaching it to small fabric protrusions, ‘mini – straplets’, sutured on the gauntlet or the sleeve of the spacesuit and hidden underneath a flap of the suit (see picture: hanging white flap underneath the watch head), thus avoiding the need to mount an outer protective case as designed for Alaska I. It is conceivable that avoiding protrusions on the watch was part of the goal to integrate the watch ‘into’ the suit as to avoid tearing the suit or the watch being ‘caught’ while working (18, 19).
A possible E.V.A. Speedmaster
As after the Apollo missions the focus of space exploration converged towards the use of near space orbital space stations, also the development of equipment for space use converged to the refinement of equipment needed to build and maintain these new habitats. One focus within this new orientation was the optimisation of the spacesuits used during E.V.A.’s (EVA, Extra Vehicular Activities) or ‘space walks’. These outer space activities would become highly important, as they are needed to assemble and repair the space modules and also to maintain and repair other orbital hardware, such as satellites or the ‘Hubble’ telescope. Such EVA’s can last for hours and a meticulous timing is crucial for the missions but also for the Astronauts safety.
If the picture above with the integrated Alaska III prototype is analysed further, one can see that the spacesuit in which the new watch was envisioned to be integrated, is indeed one used for EVA’s. Thus it can be deducted, that the prototypes with 1100x cases might have been specifically designed to be worn when working in outer space, during EVA’s, while wearing these specific EVA suits. As these suits are only used for working in outer space, it makes sense, that some of these 1100x prototypes were specifically and heavily tested for material resistance, as the manoeuvrability inside such an EVA suit is very limited and thus the probability of sudden movements and subsequent breakage of the watch crystal or other components would be increased.
Following this thought it becomes also more understandable, why it was envisioned to use battery powered watches. As EVA suits are only used at certain time periods during a mission, the watches, which are permanently attached to the EVA suit, would not require to be wound or set and would run reliably through the whole mission time. These battery powered versions running with cal.: 1255 had also the advantage to allow for high angle pushers which would allow an easier activation while wearing quite bulky EVA-gloves (19).
Finally 3 versions were submitted to NASA: One was a re-development of the already qualified Speedmaster Professional chronograph, only this time using the newer cal.: 861 surrounded by a matte finished case and a dial that featured a ‘radial’ layout for its chronograph counters (Ref.: ST 145.022). The second proposal was an automatic chronograph with Omega’s cal.: 1045 (normally ref.: 11000, but one ref.: 11003 known) also with ‘radial’ numbering and lastly an electromechanical Speedmaster chronograph that employed a tuning fork as regulating organ (Ref.: 11003). Latter watch running with cal.: 1255, became later known as the ‘Speedsonic’ model ref.: ST 188.0002 (5).
There was one new condition for NASA to use Omega watches: Because of the ‘Buy American Act’, at least 50% of the watches ‘value’ would need to be built in the USA, so Omega had the cases produced locally by the ‘Star Watch Case Co.’ in Michigan. This is also the reason why there is no mentioning of ‘Swiss Made’ on the dial (9). Thus, these watches do not only bear the Omega production info on the case back, they also feature the ‘Star Watch Case Co.’ stamp.
NASA chose again not to completely replace the ‘regular’ Speedmaster, nor to introduce a specific EVA watch. However, finally a first batch of 56 pieces of the most classic Ref.: ST 145.022 was delivered to them. They were used aboard ‘Space Shuttle’ during the 1980ies. A second batch soon followed (9).
Alaska IV , 1978 – 1979: Space Shuttle Speedmaster
In 1978 NASA officially launches the search for a new watch to be used on Space Shuttle missions. The last project of the Alaska series tested a complete electronic watch with LCD display for suitability in space. 20 prototypes were made and some sent to NASA for use in training and in space.
According to the Omega Museum, despite the Astronauts willingness to wear modern and high tech tools (Quartz/LCD), the chances for this prototypes to be selected by NASA were very low as everybody knew that James Ragan had a strong preference for mechanical watches (that he expressed already in the Alaska III / Speedsonic episode) simply because he wanted to exclude any uncontrolled risk in space (22).
For a thorough review of these prototypes please refer to this excellent site.
- Fratello Magazine
- Phillips Auctioneers, Alaska I
- Omega watches, Alaska I
- Omega Watches, Alaska II
- Phillips Auctioneers, Alaska III
- Watchbooks Only
- Omega watches, Alaska III
- Richon M.; Omega, Reise durch die Zeit; Omega AG, 2007
- Dr. Crott
- Phillips Auctioneers
- Personal communication with @vintagewatchzilla
- Personal communication with @t_solo_t
- NASA Spacesuits
- Omega Alaska IV
- Monochrome Watches
- Petros Protopapas, Head of Brand Heritage, Omega: Fratello Podcast
- Omega, On board of Concorde
- Screenshot: Concorde, une Epopée, Documentary FR 2019, Joëlle Novic
- Instruments Concorde Serie