Omega Speedmaster Apollo 8
If you’re callous and cynical like me, the words “Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Special Edition” will send a shiver down your spine. Of course, Omega's fabled Moonwatch is a hallowed and exquisite piece of not only timekeeping, but history as well, and one of the last bastions of the watchmaking of old still available today—but that doesn’t mean that Omega hasn’t flogged the special edition horse until it’s just a pile of dry, dry bones. But not every special edition is just a lazy attempt to cash in. Some are better than others, and the Moonwatch Dark Side Of The Moon Apollo 8 special edition is the best we’ve had in a decade.
We look back on the Apollo program and see a hugely successful, unimaginably ambitious mission to achieve the greatest feat mankind has ever attempted—and that’s true. But it was also so much more than that. With our rose-tinted glasses on, we see the program in the way a child sees an adult; cool, calm, collected and in control. But the truth is enough to bring out those who hear it in a cold sweat.
On October 11th, 1968, Apollo 7 lifted off the launchpad at Cape Kennedy to become the first manned mission of the Apollo program, and the first manned space flight by NASA for two years. There should have been a manned space flight in the Saturn rocket a year before, but a fire in the Apollo 1 crew capsule spelt disaster, burning the three astronauts inside to their tragic deaths. It was then discovered that, in the haste to beat the Russians to the moon, the program had become riddled with cut corners and safety concerns. Astronaut John Glenn, when asked how he felt being sat atop a NASA rocket, said, “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and you were sitting on top of two million parts all built by the lowest bidder.”
By Apollo 6, the problems were still numerous. An unmanned test flight, Apollo 6 demonstrated significant technical problems with the Saturn rocket. The first stage suffered severe pogo oscillation that would have exerted borderline deadly g-forces on the crew, the second stage had engine failure in two of the motors and the third failed to reignite in orbit. This was a mission flying by the seat of its pants.
Nevertheless, just two months after Apollo 7 and astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders boarded their Saturn V, not just to be shot into orbit but to leave it completely. The mission was originally intended for early 1969, but time was running short and so it was brought forward to the end of 1968, cutting the astronauts’ already tight training by three months. And so, on December 21st, Apollo 8 peeled away from the hold of Earth’s gravitational field to become the first manned spaceflight to leave low Earth orbit—and it was headed straight for the moon.
Apollo 11 gets all the limelight, and rightly so, but the crew of Apollo 8 are the true, unsung heroes. These men were the first to leave the security of Earth’s comforting hold, to be pointed at the blackness of space and fired straight for it at more than 20,000mph. Imagine wondering for three whole days if you’d even make it to the moon? Or just sail on by? And then wondering for another three days if you’ll get back again? The thought of being stranded, drifting out into the cosmos with no hope of return is, frankly, terrifying. After sixty-four hours, the crew of Apollo 8 finally reached their target, disappearing behind the far side of the moon for the first time and completely losing contact with Earth. “We’ll see you on the other side,” Lovell told mission control.
It’s a mission that, therefore, deserves more of a fanfare than it really gets. Sure, the broadcast was the most-watched program of all time, and the three astronauts were named Time magazine’s “Men Of The Year”, but really all that was erased the following year by the moon landing. So, it seems fitting that Omega has acknowledged this ground-breaking mission with a special edition that’s actually worth getting excited about.
If you were to lay every Omega Moonwatch special edition end to end, I don’t know how far it would go, but it would be one hell of a walk. It’s no secret that Omega has been rather prolific with its endorsement of the Moonwatch; like any overbearing parent, it wants every man and his dog to remember that it was an Omega worn on the moon. I can understand that.
The reality of this, however, is a litany of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it differences between the many special editions that have spilled forth from Omega’s Bienne workshop. Not to say that these editions aren’t nice, or otherwise—that’s a matter of opinion—but they aren’t necessarily special. In my eyes, it diminishes the significance of both the event and the watch if the commemoration merely warrants a subtle patch on the dial.
In 2008, Omega released what many consider to be the best Moonwatch special edition ever created, the Alaska Project. In just one watch, Omega told a story of what the lunar program could have been had it not been defunded, an alien design that captured the imagination with its bright white dial, capsule-shaped hands and—lest we forget—enormous, bright red, aluminium outer shield. In short, Omega made an effort.
Other special editions have come and gone since, some good, some not so much—but none ever really quite captured the essence of that incredible Alaska Project. None, that is, until now, because the Apollo 8 is really rather extraordinary. But can it put the special back in special edition?
Based on the Speedmaster Dark Side Of The Moon, manufactured extensively in black ceramic, the Apollo 8 uses its dial and movement to transport you straight to the lunar surface, the topology of our rocky satellite laid out in three dimensions across the surface. Etched with a laser, the fine detail is so clear that it’s easy to get lost in the hills and valleys of this astronomical body, to imagine what it must have been like to lay eyes on the pockmarked surface for the first time with such clarity.
And, as it was for the crew of Apollo 8, the far side of the moon is visible, too. The calibre 1869, based on the standard 1861, offers a view those men were the first to see with their own eyes, a view that only twenty-four people have ever had the privilege to enjoy. Intermingled with the hand wound, horizontal clutch chronograph, it’s a window back to an age of experimentation, exploration—and most importantly, daring. It makes me yearn for those heart-stopping moments, but for this generation; those moments when nations come together to witness the evolution of humanity right before their eyes.
The sad thing is that, immersed in the dark case, shadowed by the recessed lip of the ceramic, the Apollo 8 watch almost feels like a fading memory, fragments of something special that degrade just a little more every year. The exploration of space should be one of the foundations of our development as a species, but yet, like the pieces of our heavenly neighbour depicted in this watch, it lays shattered and incomplete.
You may find the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Apollo 8 special edition a bit of gimmick, and I accept that the attraction to it is entirely subjective. It’s not often that I offer an opinion, because it’s not for me to dictate to you what you should think of something from a subjective point of view—but I think the Apollo 8 blurs the lines here. I see it, in black and yellow, as a stark warning that what makes humanity great and prosperous is hanging by a thread, that all the accomplishments of our forebears run the risk of being for nothing.
There was another special edition Moonwatch a while back, a fairly simple one, whose message of hope can, in hindsight, be seen in a rather different light. I’m talking about the From Moon To Mars edition, when the exploration of the red planet really kickstarted with the landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, with the express goal for humans to follow soon after. That was in 2004, over a decade-and-a-half ago. Let’s hope the Omega Apollo 8 doesn’t get as old as that before we take the next step.
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