Station To Station: The Ultimate Isolation Watches
For astronauts living in outer space, measuring time takes on a whole new meaning.
Last month, NASA announced that SpaceX will send astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken from Florida's Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 27. This will be the first time a manned space rocket has taken off from American soil since NASA retired the Space Shuttle program in 2011. It also marks the first crewed mission for SpaceX since its founding 18 years.
In the past, we’ve written at length about the timepieces that astronauts have worn to the moon (read HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE). But what about the watches worn by explorers who spend weeks, or even months, in orbit? With social distancing, life on planet Earth today sometimes seems as isolated as a trip to the ISS. So, we thought it was time to take a look at some of the timepieces that help astronauts navigate their space odyssey.
William Pogue’s Seiko 6139
In 1973, NASA launched the United States’ first space station, Skylab. Its mission was to conduct hundreds of experiments, so it was outfitted with an orbital workshop, a solar observatory, and an Earth observatory. During its mission, it was occupied by a trio of different three-man crews.
Among the Skylab astronauts was William Pogue, who opted to take his personal Seiko 6139 automatic chronograph into outer space in 1973. While Pogue was also issued an Omega Speedmaster like his predecessors, Pogue preferred his Seiko because it had a “speed timer” that allowed him to gauge engine burns. The watch has since come to be known as the “Pogue Seiko.”
Scott Kelly’s Breitling Emergency and Navitimer 1461
Scott Kelly is an American astronaut who really knows about isolation. Beginning in March 2015, Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent a whole year on the ISS, just the two of them.
Kelly is also a watch lover and reportedly took four different timepieces on that voyage. One of the great perks of writing about watches is being able to meet rocket ship stars like Kelly.
At an event hosted by Breitling CEO (and Kelly lookalike) Georges Kern, we learned that most of the time on the space station is spent performing experiments and making observations. So along with the NASA endorsed Omegas, Kelly also brought a Breitling Emergency and Navitimer 1461 (a gift from his twin brother and fellow astronaut, Mark Kelly). The Navitimer features a calendar, a slide rule, and a moon phase complication to measure not just speed and distance but also to mark time.
Mikhail Kornienko’s Fortis B-42 Chronograph
Meanwhile, in 1992, Fortis became the official timekeeper for Russian cosmonauts participating in the Euromir international space program. But the brand’s association with the Russian space program goes back to the 1960s when astronauts trained with the appropriately named Spacematic.
Since 1994, Fortis B-42 Chronographs have flown on over 12 missions to the International Space Station and worn both inside and outside of the station. This watch is as emblematic of Russian space travelers as the Omega Speedmaster is with American spaceflight.
Most famously, cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko was given an Official Cosmonauts Chronograph in 2005 for his first space mission in the same year. Kornienko, who has logged 516 days and 10 hours in space, also wore the discontinued timepiece on his 2015 mission with Kelly.
TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 1887 SpaceX Chronograph
What makes a mission to a space station so different than a manned Moon landing? The International Space Station is designed to perform longterm research on how living in microgravity affects living organisms, especially humans. The ISS also tests technologies that, one day, may allow humans to live and work on the Moon.
And by living with a small team separated from their loved ones by millions of miles, they are exploring not just the physical effects of space but the impact of extended space travel on social relationships as well.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is all about collaboration, and one of its early partnerships was with TAG Heuer. Back in 2012, the brand introduced the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 1887 SpaceX Chronograph, a watch inspired by the Heuer stopwatch John Glenn took into space in the 1960s.
The Chronograph that rode the SpaceX’s Dragon and made a trip to the International Space Station now belongs to Musk. No word on if it will be back for the upcoming expedition.
Chris Hadfield’s Omega Speedmaster Professional
Since the 1960s, all American astronauts have been issued Speedmasters. But Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also relied on his NASA certified Omega on his many missions.
Among his many accomplishments, Hadfield is a fully qualified astronaut and cosmonaut, the first Canadian to both walk in space and visit the Russian space station Mir, and he served as a crew member then as the commander of the International Space Station.
In December 2012, Hadfield set off for a five-month stay aboard the ISS, where his Twitter posts about life on the space station made him an international celebrity.
He is also a spacewalk superstar, having spent a total of 14 hours and 50 minutes in the vacuum of space. Not so coincidentally, one of the reasons NASA favors the Speedmaster is that it can be worn for both intra and extra-vehicular activities. When they are inside the ISS’s pressurized cabin, astronauts wear the watch on their wrists just like on Earth. On a spacewalk, astronauts attach the watch to the outside of their spacesuits using the Velcro strap.
Fun fact: All astronauts, including Hadfield, set their watches to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) — halfway between Houston and Moscow — in order to keep in touch with mission control.
Omega Speedmaster 'Alaska Project'
One of the funkiest Omega Speedmasters is the Alaska Project.
This big, cushioned-shape, titanium watch was the result of Omega's research and development team's quest to create a version of the Speedmaster designed with manned space flight in mind (the original Speedmaster was launched in 1957, and intended as a sport and racing chronograph).
The first Alaska prototype was produced in 1969, but the version that stands out in most enthusiasts' minds is the 1972 edition that was actually tested by NASA. You may know it by its zinc-coated dial, high visibility hands for the minute and hour registers, and a big red anodized aluminum outer shroud, meant to protect the watch the heat produced upon reentry into the earth's orbit.
The Speedmaster Alaska Project never made it past the NASA's formidable testing stage, but the timepiece apparently blasted into space as part of the Soyuz 25 mission.
In 1977, the Russian space station, Salyut 6 was launched unmanned, two cosmonauts — Vladimir Kovalyonok and Valery Ryumin — were sent in Soyuz 25 to populate it. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, photos exist of Kovalyonok and Ryumin wearing what appear to be Alaska Project Speedmasters strapped over their flight suits.
In 2008, Omega launched an Alaska Project (the Omega Speedmaster Alaska Project, ref 3220.127.116.11.04.001) for non-astronauts.
(Images provided by the brands)