Commander Scott Kelly emerged from his Soyuz transport capsule yesterday after spending 340 days living in space. It was a remarkable feat that captured the public's imagination more than any space flight since perhaps Apollo 11. So it's fitting that strapped to his wrist, as he waved to his terrestrial welcoming committee, was the same hand-wound mechanical chronograph that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wore on their fateful Moon mission in 1969 — the OMEGA Speedmaster Professional.
The Speedmaster Professional, or "Speedy" as it's known to its legions of fans, has been a NASA-approved timepiece ever since the mid-1960s, when Ed White wore one strapped on the outside of his spacesuit while performing the first American extra-vehicular activity (EVA) "spacewalk" on his Gemini 4 mission. It was worn on every Apollo mission, from the tragic launchpad disaster of Apollo 1 to the last Moon mission of Apollo 17. It even earned NASA's highest award for helping save the endangered Apollo 13 crew and their crippled craft, by timing a critical engine burn to correct their trajectory. In the 1970s, the Speedmaster was re-approved by NASA for the space shuttle program and remains the only watch approved for EVA. Pretty remarkable for a watch that debuted in 1957.
When it was first introduced by Swiss brand OMEGA, the Speedmaster was marketed as a motorsports watch, with a tachymeter scale to time laps on a track. But after Wally Schirra wore one for his Mercury-Atlas mission in 1962, NASA put the Speedy and several other wrist chronographs through a battery of torture tests — heat, cold, vacuum, vibration — to determine which could stand up to the brutal environment astronauts would face in space and on the moon. Only the Speedmaster survived, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The technology of space travel has evolved greatly since the 1960s in almost every respect. So the fact that a hand-wound mechanical wristwatch, developed before the first man went into space, was strapped to Scott Kelly's wrist during his year on an orbiting space station is not only amazing, but also a testament to the fact that sometimes low tech is still the best tech. And it wouldn't be surprising if, when the first astronaut steps foot on Mars, on his or her wrist will also be strapped an OMEGA Speedmaster Professional.