Timepiece Chronicle

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Found: NASA procurement document for Omega Chronographs

Found: NASA procurement document for Omega Chronographs

Last year I was fortunate enough to attend Omega's Ambassador training course at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and was able to hold some beautiful Speedmasters courtesy of a museum representative: an original CK2915 from 1957, a solid gold Speedmaster presented to Vice President Agnew and a Spacemaster X-33 that had been worn up in the International Space Station. A few days ago I managed to find my notes from that training which had been boxed up and forgotten about during my move over to the States and aside from my childish scrawls I found two photocopied documents relating to the procurement of Omega Chronographs for NASA testing. The first was a Request for Quotations form to the Norman M. Morris Corporation from NASA and the other a letter from the Head of the Astronaut Office to the Head of Procurement and Contracts Division. Unfortunately the quality of the second document had degraded after being a photocopy of a photocopy so I've typed that up which you can see below.

NASA Request for Quotations document.png
B06/Precurement and contracts division
Attention: Mr. John. E. Jones

In reply refer to: CF32/4M/288
CA/Assistant Director for Flight Crew Operations

Flight crew chronographs

A requirement exists for a highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews as an essential adjunet, or as a backup for spacecraft timing devices for accomplishing time critical operational and experimental tasks. In order to select a chronograph which best meets our overall requirements, it is necessary to accomplish a comparative evaluation of the better quality “off the shelf” chronographs under realistic operational conditions. The evaluation will take place during such flight crew training programs as the Gemini Mission Simulators, during spacecraft and other flight equipment testing in the altitude chambers,egress and recovery exercises, planetarium reviews and during the first two manned Gemini flights. The evaluation will be of the basis “off the shelf” items; however an analysis will also be made of any additional features and/or modifications that may be required

It is highly desirable that we commence with this evaluation at an early date so that a standard flight crew chronograph can be obtained prior to the longer duration Gemini Flights and the Apollo flights. The evaluation items should be available during the preflight training for the first two manned Gemini flight crews, which are now in progress. On this basis, quotations from various chronograph manufacturers meeting the specifications as listed in enclosure 1, “Statement of Specifications” should be received by this organization by October 21, 1964. Immediately subsequent to this date, it is our intent to purchase locally at least one of each brand that meets, or very nearly meets, these specifications. Off the shelf chronographs which very nearly meet the specifications may be considered if they, in other respects, surpass the overall specifications. The manufacturer in this case may choose to reply to the request for quotation; however, NASA-MSC will make the determination as to whether or not the chronograph will be subsequently evaluated. If it estimated that a total of twelve chronographs are required for evaluation purposes.

Some, but not all, of the chronograph manufacturing companies that should receive a request for quotation are contained in enclsoure 2, “Suggested list of Chronograph Manufacturers.” Attached as enclosure 3 is the purchase request for $2,600 to cover the cost of twelve chronographs. Attached as enclosure 4 is the purchase request for $120 to cover the cost of twelve J.B. Champion expandable watch bands.

Enclosures 4

CF32:JJVanBockel: mgr 9/21/64
— Donald K. Slayton

When I first got into jewelry and watches I heard a brilliant story about how NASA first obtained the Speedmaster chronograph for testing. The story goes that a NASA engineer went into Corrigan's Jewelers in Houston and after several minutes of looking around decided on buying several Omega Speedmaster Chronographs. I've heard a variation where the engineer tried on the watch and started shaking his arm violently up and down trying to see how legible the dial was. These watches would then be tested over three years and would eventually be worn on the astronauts wrists without Omega's knowledge until someone in their New York office saw photographs of the astronauts and called NASA to check. Now when I believed it to be true I'm guilty of having shared this story to more than one customer because what better anecdote for a salesperson to tell a client that the purchase of the legendary Speedmaster for NASA was done with a degree of subterfuge and without any tweaks or changes to the model available to the public (Just like the one you're holding Sir/Madam!). It's a story that has perpetuated because it is a great story to tell. 

This document from NASA disproves the tale and from my notes, heavily underlined, I was told by the two Omega trainers that this story is False with a capital F. Now it is understandable that the story could have been true with there being precedent for astronauts wearing their own personal watches. Wally Schirra wore his personal Omega Speedmaster Professional CK2998 during the Sigma 7 Mission and Commander Dave Scott wore his Bulova chronograph on the Moon during Apollo 15 (For those interested and have the available funds, Scott's Bulova Ref.885104/01 is currently up for auction and at the time of writing is currently just under $200,000). So the notion of astronauts going off to buy their own watches isn't as farfetched as it might first appear however there is a huge difference between a single astronaut using a personal item and a government employee purchasing watches using public funds. NASA is a government agency and there are lots of paperwork to complete before anything can be done so the chances of a lone man going to a jewelers and asking for a claimable receipt is unlikely. 

The  Request for Quotations is addressed to the Omega Watch Company care of the Norman M. Morris Corporation who at the time was the sole distributor of Omega Watches to the United States. Norman Morris was born in 1898 in Austria-Hungary and moved with his family to New York City when he was three years old. By fifteen he was a delivery boy for a watch importer and by twenty five he started the Norman. M. Morris Corporation which by 1933 had the sole distribution rights for Omega and pretty soon would also distribute Tissot and Audemars Piguet as well. Whilst researching the corporation I found a rather interesting lawsuit  in 1972 between N. M. M. Corp and a Mr. Weinstein of Bright Star Enterprise. Mr. Weinstein had been travelling to Europe, purchasing a variety of Omega Watches from his friends in local jewelers, removing the serial numbers, travelling back to the United States (legally paying duty on the watches) and then selling them onto jewellers across the country. This of course was in direct violation with Omega's arrangement with Norman. M. Morris. Not only this but Mr. Weinstein was also selling these watches on without a valid Omega guarantee. Not such a bright move from Bright Star Enterprise. 

Under "A.Quantities to be purchased" it clearly states that the U.S. Government intends to procure two chronographs from six different manufacturers to test their suitability for spaceflight operations. From what I learnt at my training, the brands in question were Bulova, Braun, Longines, Hamilton, Rolex and Omega with only the last four actually submitting watches to be tested. Whilst the instructions clearly state that it is chronographs without a band that NASA were after, Hamilton submitted a marine chronometer pocket watch which was promptly disqualified for testing. That left the Longines (provided of course by the Longines-Wittnauer Company of America), Rolex and Omega to compete to be the first watch qualified by NASA for EVA activity. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Vintage Style: Timeless watches from Theo & Harris

Vintage Style: Timeless watches from Theo & Harris

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