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Feature: What Happened To Breitling’s Space Watch?

In 1957 the Soviet Union was leaping ahead of the USA in the so-called ‘space race’, launching Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, and sending Yuri Gagarin around Earth on a single orbit a few years later.

Spooked by the Soviet’s technological progress—there was an acrimonious cold war going on, after all—the USA founded NASA shortly after, and by 1961 it was putting its own astronauts into space, with Alan B Shepard and Virgil Grissom the first two to take the trip on separate missions.

Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space

Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space

With neither of the Americans believed to have worn any kind of watch on these trips, and the Soviets sticking to home-grown brands, the prize of being the first Swiss watch in space was still up for grabs in February 1962 when it was the turn of astronaut John Glenn to board the Friendship Seven one-man spacecraft.

The Space Heuer

Permitted, like all astronauts at that time, to choose their own watch, Glenn opted for a Heuer model (as TAG Heuer was then called), making it the first Swiss watch in space.

So why, then, haven’t you heard of this pioneering watch? Why hasn’t TAG Heuer capitalised on this monumental feat and released dozens of variations on this model, much like Omega’s fabled Speedmaster which later became the first watch on the Moon?

Do vintage models still exist? Does it have a cool, lunar-themed nickname?

Never mind the Monaco, what about the ‘Moonaco’?

Well, somewhat understandably, TAG Heuer has been reluctant to maximise its Moon story as the timepiece in question wasn’t a wristwatch but a stopwatch.

It wasn’t until May 1962 that a Swiss wristwatch went into orbit, and that was worn by the fourth American in space and the second to orbit the Earth, Scott Carpenter.

Lords Of Aviation

NASA recruited their astronauts from the field of US Navy test pilots, and Carpenter was no exception. He was reportedly already a fan of the Breitling Navitimer, which had nailed down its reputation as an invaluable aviation tool since its launch in 1952.

Adding to Breitling’s aviation kudos was the fact that it supplied Britain’s Royal Air Force with chronographs and cockpit clocks as far back as 1936. And it was still doing so for the likes of Boeing and Lockheed, the leading names in aerospace manufacturing.

A Navitimer 809 model, the first Swiss wristwatch in space. Image: Bonhams

A Navitimer 809 model, the first Swiss wristwatch in space. Image: Bonhams

With its numerous scales and markings essential for making in-flight calculations, the Navitimer seemed the obvious choice for Carpenter, and a version with a 24-hour dial and slightly larger bezel—reference 809— was prepared for his mission.

He was to consult his Cosmonaute, as it was later named, many times on his five-hour flight inside the Aurora 7 space capsule. But the mission was far from flawless, and due to some serious miscalculations, Carpenter and his watch were lucky to make it back Earth at all.

Spaceproof But Not Waterproof

The Cosmonaute performed admirably during the flight, but on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere Carpenter is said to have disobeyed some of mission control’s instructions, causing the Aurora to overshoot the planned splashdown point in the Atlantic Ocean by 250 miles.

With the recovery craft at least an hour away, Carpenter left his shuttle and waited it out on a plastic life raft until Navy divers whisked him to safety.

Pioneering NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7

Pioneering NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7

Here the Cosmonaute—not built for aquatic pursuits—took on water and was damaged to the extent that Carpenter later returned it to Breitling for repair. It was the last time he saw that particular Navitimer. The watch Breitling sent him back was a brand-new model with the word Cosmonaute on the dial.

The trifling matter of water leakage didn’t stop Breitling mentioning its endeavours in space on its advertising, but Carpenter’s watch disappeared into the Breitling vaults, never to be seen again. Its tiny vintage museum in its Manhattan boutique includes a model identical to the one Carpenter wore, but not the actual watch.

From The Stars To The Sea

Pilot mistakes or an instrument malfunction, Carpenter took the blame for a series of errors that could have cost him his life, and he was never to fly in space again, eventually—somewhat ironically—becoming an aquanaut for the US Navy’s Sealab project.

A modern Breitling Navitimer, the brand's flagship model

A modern Breitling Navitimer, the brand's flagship model

These days, Breitling seldom refers to its space watch in its marketing literature. Who knows as to whether it prefers to distance itself from Carpenter’s imperfect mission, or has simply conceded defeat to Omega for the title of the ultimate ‘space’ watch brand.

As for Carpenter’s subsequent diving career, it is unknown whether the watch he wore for this work was a Breitling…

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