As the space race was heating up in the late 1950s, scientists from the National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) were charged with finding a watch that would survive the extreme conditions of space travel. Rather than develop one from scratch, a NASA technician walked incognito into a shop in Houston, bought a series of chronographs – watches that display time and can also be used as a stopwatch – and took them back for the agency to test them.
NASA subjected each timepiece to temperatures as high as 93°C and down to -18°C. The regimen included exposing the watches to shocks, vibrations, humidity, acceleration and extreme pressure. One passed every test: Omega’s Speedmaster, launched in 1957 (renamed the Speedmaster Professional in 1966). It remains NASA’s watch of choice for space missions.
Over time Seiko, Bulova, Fortis, Sinn, Poljot, Breitling and Heuer all began making watches that would be carried into space. Such models have proved surprisingly popular, leading Omega in particular to create more than 100 different special editions. Reproductions and variants of the 1950s and 1960s models, sold under catchy names like “Speedy Tuesday” and “Dark Side of the Moon”, sell out as soon as they are announced. Prices start at £3,200 ($4,200), depending on the model. Many are then resold for far greater sums.
Other brands have also successfully launched space-related collector’s items. Seiko’s 6139-6002 was the first automatic chronograph to go into serial production in 1969. It then became the first automatic chronograph in space when Colonel William Pogue wore one alongside his NASA-certified Speedmaster for 84 days in 1973-74, during the Skylab 4 mission which put a manned crew aboard the American space station. Ever since, collectors have nicknamed the version with the distinctive yellow dial the “Pogue”.
Space mania seems to be growing as the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon approaches in 2019. After years of disinterest in space exploration, entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Elon Musk have spoken of their dreams of space-travel. This has also affected the values of space-related watches.
Over the past year, the price of a Pogue has increased from a few hundred pounds to close to £1,000 for a mint example. The price of vintage Speedmasters, the most coveted space-related timepieces, is increasing, too. The first series of Speedmasters from 1957 sell for an average of £250,000 at auction these days, even though they pre-date space travel. A decade ago, you could pick up a 1960s Speedmaster for less than £1,500. Now the 1960s models as worn by the astronauts range in price from £15,000 to £300,000 depending on type.
Gone are the days when people would gauge the hour by using the position of the sun. Today, space-tested technology is proving to have lasting allure.