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The First Watch in Space

  • Najib Benouar

Breitling Cosmonaut

Aside from reminding us how well “Cape Canaveral” rolls off the tongue, yesterday’s shuttle launch of the Endeavor also reminded us of one particularly handsome watch: the Breitling Cosmonaute.

Otherwise known as the first watch in space.

No, it wasn’t the Omega Speedmaster—widely known as “the moon watch” for accompanying Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11. In fact, the first wristwatch to break the celestial plane was the Cosmonaute, riding on the wrist of Scott Carpenter in 1962.

Here’s the story, in case you haven’t seen The Right Stuff: Hot on the heels of the Russians’ Sputnik/Gagarin galactic firsts, America’s awesomely-titled inaugural space program, Project Mercury, quickly began assembling its own team of super-human spacemen—to be known as “The Mercury Seven.” Amongst the seven Americans chosen was Carpenter, a Navy pilot/engineer tasked with developing the navigation instruments and being the timekeeper.

Naturally, for his timekeeping duties, Carpenter turned to his trusty Breitling Navitimer—an elegantly gargantuan pilot’s watch. Upon realizing the otherworldly challenge of telling day from night in outer space, Carpenter decided he’d need the 12-hour tachymeter replaced with a 24-hour one. So he called up Breitling and commissioned a new 24-hour sliding scale built into his Navitimer. Intuitively, the Swiss watch company dubbed this new watch the Cosmonaute—and the rest is history.

The piece we’ve dug up here happens to be the first automatic version of the Cosmonaute and, coincidentally, shares the same inadvertent left-handed-ness as this Jo Siffert Autavia. Apropos enough, this new complication would mark the second time a Cosmonaute could claim “first” since Breitling beat out Zenith by mere weeks as the first automatic chronograph on the market.

But as Mr. Gagarin can tell you, second place is just the first loser…