Saturday, August 11, 2007

The First Watch in Space

On April 12, 06:07 GMT, 1961 Juri Gagarin, at the controls of Vostok One, ushered in a new era, one of manned space flight, and the world was forever changed. The technology that put this man in space and brought him safely home, was some of the newest and most modern equipment available. Ironically, on his wrist was a technology that was already centuries old-- watch making. It may seem odd to us now in this time of extremely accurate quartz watches, but at the time, the mechanical wrist watch was an important piece of gear, and it’s accuracy and reliability were of paramount concern. In light of these concerns, the choice of watch Gagarin took with him would not have been a decision made in haste.

The STURMANSKIE, (or ШТУРМАНСКИЕ in Cyrillic,) which had been issued to new graduates of the prestigious Orenberg Flight School along with their diplomas since the late 1940’s, was a logical choice, due to the high quality of the movement and inherent accuracy of the watch. Gagarin would have been supplied with such a 1st Moscow Watch Factory Sturmanskie opon graduation from Orenberg as well, but it is doubtful that he would have received the Sturmanskie he wore into space at that time. Most likely, he would have been awarded a 15 jewel watch, very similar to the one he wore in space but lacking some of the newer features that were unavailable at that time.

Based on an earlier French design, the Lip R26, from which the Soviets purchased the machinery to produce the watch. The Soviet’s had updated the design by adding a central seconds complication and a hacking feature that allowed the watch to be precisely stopped and synchronized with a given time signal. A critical detail on any military watch, but especially so on a Navigator’s watch, where often location would be ascertained by correctly estimating where the aircraft was by accurately measuring time to distance.

The Sturmanskie Gagarin wore into space had a highly finished (including Geneva striping!) 17 jewel, shock protected movement. The movement was housed in a chrome plated, two-piece case measuring 33 mm across, 12 mm high, with a 16 mm lug size and had a stainless steel screw back. Unlike the earlier watch’s stainless steel snap back, the new watch was fully gasketed providing better water resistance.

As a matter of fact, the Sturmanskie’s movement and case, were virtually identical to the civilian Sportivnie (Спортивные). Only the dial separated the two watches visually from each other. After his world famous flight, the watch Gagarin wore was donated to what was soon to become ПОЛЕТ or Poljot, meaning flight, in honor of Gagarin’s groundbreaking mission. Where it currently resides as part of their present day collection.


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