Most “watch nerds” are familiar with the story of the Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch” and the ensuing cult of flight certified and flown wristwatches. However like many things in the cold war, including the Space Shuttle, Concord, and the Harrier behind the iron curtain a shadowy mirror image could be found competing with the western version. In the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 70’s there was another column wheel chronograph strapped to the wrist of a man hanging in raw vacuum and remorselessly ticking away.
The fable of the Speedmaster, for the uninitiated goes something like this. The relatively newly formed NASA, an organisation which was a curious mix of beanie hatted engineering geeks and balls to the wall, all go no quit, steely eyed test pilots needed to issue their freshly minted “astronauts” with watches which would stand up to the frankly
insane demands of spaceflight. NASA took what retrospectively looks like a characteristically American, pragmatic and capitalist approach to the problem. They let astronauts choose whichever the watch they wanted from the many commercially available and as long as it did not look like it might actually blow up inside the spacecraft all was well. Early Mercury astronauts wore a mixture of watches including Brietlings, Bulovas and in Ed White’s case, his personal Omega Speedmaster.
Eventually NASA decided it needed to standardise equipment and opted to test a range of commercially available chronographs to destruction. Astonishingly NASA independently bought a clutch of watches, including Breiltings and Rolexes off the self from a local dealer and started sticking them in vacuum chambers, accelerating them to massive speeds, stopping them suddenly, baking them in ovens and freezing them. The only watch to survive was the Omega, prompting NASA to order in bulk from the Swiss manufacturer. It seems crazy in retrospect that Omega were actually paid for the watches NASA used, given the value that was later derived from this arrangement.
In contrast to this the early soviet space program was presented with exactly the same problem and took what in retrospect looks like characteristically Soviet, planned and socialist approach to the
problem. They formed a major state industry to mass produce wrist watches, licensed technology from a likely looking source (Venus movements which powered early Breitling Navitimers), built the brilliantly named “1st Moscow Watch Factory” and manufactured a something from scratch to meet their aerospace needs.
Now commonly known as the “Strela” (Russian for “Arrow”) this watch was based around a calibre derived from the Venus 150 movement and dubbed the 3017. Originally this was issued to Russian air force pilots it became standard issue for cosmonauts throughout the early days of the soviet space program. Most memorably it seems Alexi Leonov wore a “Strela” on the first “spacewalk” or EVA (extra vehicular activity) just a few months before Ed White would do the same wearing his Speedmaster. Unlike White’s flight however, and in keeping with the general lack of contemporary documentation available in the USSR space program there is some debate if Leonov wore a watch on the EVA, or if he did whether it was inside or outside his pressure suit.
In any case Strelas were in heavy use amongst cosmonauts of this ear and were clearly still being used in space in 1978 with cosmonaut Alexi Gubarev clearly pictured in Omega’s own “Time Capsule” book on the history of the Speedmaster.
Looking at the two watches side by side today it’s obvious the Omega is far more durable and well built. It’s chunkier, the feedback from the chronograph pushers is more positive and the whole package feels like something you would trust to shoot into space with you. In some respects this difference illustrates the contrasts between Soviet and Western engineering at the time, particularly in what could be described as “consumer goods”. Indeed it seems that at various points cosmonauts obtained Omega’s of various models to replace issued Strelas.
That being said the Strela is a deeply cool and unique looking watch today. The Cyclic script on the dial adds a degree of exotic charm and the “Made in the USSR” rather than the “Swiss Made” stamp on the dial makes you feel vaguely traitorous as you strap in on your wrist and venture out into an industrialised western city. It’s also a great talking point amongst anyone who notices that your watch was not made by one of the usual suspects.
Interestingly both the soviets and Omega recognised very quickly the branding value of the watches for sale to the public. The soviets created the “Sekonda” brand to sell watches built in Russia to western democracies, presumably to obtain some useful foreign currency and offset the massive costs of running a state owned watch factory. However the soviet marketers were not up to their Swiss counterparts and the Sekonda brand was sold on and degenerated into quartz powered drudgery in the 1980s.
Omega on the other hand caught up quickly after it’s initial tardiness and over time rejuvenated it’s entire marketing strategy on the back of it’s use in the Apollo Program. Even today you can buy a wide array of Speedmaster Professional chronos sold on the back of its NASA connection. Buzz Aldrin is still an “Omega Brand Ambassador” and the modern version of the Speedmaster Pro, the X33 is a titanium cased object of lust for space watch junkies the world over. Given that NASA originally secretly tested and then paid for it’s watches how many Speedmaster professionals has Omega sold since 1969? Or more importantly how much of the Omega brand “value” is derived from the history of this single watch. I am fairly sure a man in the Swatch marketing department can put a pretty exact figure on that one.
Vintage Strelas are still available at very reasonable prices and generally seem to go forever if well looked after. It’s a totally wearable everyday vintage watch but prices have started to creep up for good examples recently, with prices ranging from $300 to $500. On the modern front clearly someone has taken a leaf out of Omega’s book with an enterprising appropriation of history allowing you to buy modern versions of the Strela from Strela-watch.de. Without reviewing the watch in detail for a sporty looking modern mechanical chrono with some interesting pedigree it seems decent value.
Obviously the current Speedmaster Professional range offers a great modern, rock solid Omega watch with a cool history. However Omega replaced the movement in the Speedmaster, moving from the column wheel cal 321 to the cal 861, a simpler and easier to manufacture movement. Inevitably the serious watch geek will always pine for the intricate, historic 321 which was actually worn on the moon and prices reflect that. Vintage Omega Speedmasters with the appropriate movement are massively sought after and good examples go for significant amounts of money. Given the price band inevitably the unscrupulous start churning our fakes and frankens so it’s worth going to a trusted dealer.
Ultimately “space watches” are the purest expression of the mechanical “tool watch” designed to work rather than look good on the wrist. Developed in a time before quartz swept in a spoilt everything, and benefitting from being at the heart of some of the most complex and inspiring engineering feats of human history its fascinating to see the two different tacks the USSR and the USA took in the kitting out of it’s personnel. Given the cost of a vintage Speedmaster owning a Strela is a far cheaper way of obtaining an authentic column wheel chronograph with genuine historic resonance. And if you already own a Speedmaster (lucky you) it’s Russian twin would look very cool next to it in the watch box.
Russian Space History, Sothebys Catelog 1993