Feature: The Omega Spacemaster Z-33
By now you’re probably well aware of Omega’s significance in the field of space exploration, from the first in space on the wrist of Wally Schirra during the Mercury missions, all the way up to the X-33s worn on board the International Space Station. This is the latest in a long line of watches designed for elite pilots and astronauts—the Spacemaster Z-33. But how on Earth does it work?
Omega’s journey into space started way back in 1957, with the introduction of something quite unusual: the Speedmaster. In the face of the small, delicate chronographs populating jewellers’ windows at the time, it was a big brute, clear, bold and striking—arguably the first sports chronograph wristwatch.
This was way before the Daytona, establishing certain principles that have become a standard for any legitimate sports chronograph, such as an external tachymeter, a contrasting combination of hands and dial and a large steel case to hold it all. It was a watch designed to be used in the heat of the moment, legible, robust and easy to use.
It’s no wonder that Wally Schirra chose one to use for the Mercury program, the precursor to the Apollo moon landings. What you have to remember is that NASA, a fledging organisation tasked with beating the Russians into space, and failing that, the moon, had no experience with extra-terrestrial flight, or rockets, or anything like that at all. The protocols, the procedures and even the organisation itself were all built from the ground up; they were finding their feet as they went, and that included the development of the equipment used by the astronauts .
Schirra actually chose the Speedmaster himself. There was no official NASA-issue timepiece at this point, so he quite simply brought his own in from home. This was the tipping point for the Speedmaster’s inauguration as NASA’s preferred chronograph and its eventual journey to the moon. It became quite the mascot of the astronauts throughout the Apollo program; they were a surprisingly superstitious bunch, which made development of the watch quite hard. When Omega tried to introduce the redesigned Speedmaster Mark II, they straight out refused to wear it.
But, eventually, technology moved on far enough that the mechanical Speedmaster needed to be replaced, and replaced it was by the X-33, a combo analogue and digital quartz watch that added a wealth of functions designed to make life in space that little bit easier. Astronaut Don Pettit even documented a field repair of his, complete with floating screws.
The Z-33 operates in a similar way to the superseded X-33, its substantial titanium case flanked by four pushers and the crown. It’s at the crown where we begin, where we set the watch. But it’s nothing like what you’d expect from a typical mechanical crown—the digital module allows it to function in a far more complex way.
Let’s start by setting the time. It’s ‘Time 1’ in the menu, which is cycled by turning or pressing the crown. The crown is pulled to set it, as you’d expect, the hours flashing to indicate the setting mode has been activated. Turn the crown to the correct number, press the top right pusher to cycle to the minutes, set those, and repeat for the seconds. The crown is returned to the original position when complete.
You can set a second time zone too, under ‘Time 2’, in much the same way, only this time the adjustment is made in half-hour increments for speed. Next, the UTC offset can be set, a useful data point that will become clear later on. There’s also a calendar, where you can set the year, month and day, which then also adjusts the day-week display, which tells you what day and week of the year it is, should you care to know.
Now it’s all set, we can explore some of the functionality of the watch. There’s a chronograph of course—it wouldn’t be a Speedmaster without one—which works as you’d expect, start and stop from the top right pusher, reset from the bottom right, which also has a useful split function activated by pressing reset during operation. And then there’s the alarm, which can not only be set by pulling the crown to choose the time of the alarm, but also whether you want it to repeat every weekday, weekends or every day.
The flight computer is the most useful and powerful tool the Z-33 offers and can be programmed to run from take-off to landing or block to block—from parked at one airport to parked at the next—for either local or UTC times. That’s why the UTC function from earlier is there. With that set, the flight recording is started with a double press of the bottom left pusher—you’ll see a little aeroplane on the top right of the display when recording is in progress—and stopped again with another double press.
Up to ten flights can be recorded, from 0 to 9, which can then be evaluated by pulling the crown in the flight menu for flight duration, take-off time and date, and landing time and date. Flights can be erased individually by pressing the lower right reset pusher, or erased as a group by pressing and holding.
But what about the top left pusher? That’s your favourites. If you have a function you particularly like using, find it in the menu with the crown and press and hold the favourites pusher. It’ll flash, telling you it’s saved, and now you can cycle between your two preferred functions by pressing the pusher again.
There’s a last little party trick, one that comes in handy when the hands get in the way of the display: give the bottom left pusher a single press and the hands move gracefully to one side, allowing a perfect view of the red digital screens.
Whether the Z-33 will be adopted by the next generation of astronauts remains to be seen, but with rumours of the moon and even Mars becoming the targets of manned space exploration, there’s plenty of opportunity for these functions to be put to the ultimate test. I suppose we’ll wait and see.
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