Where's the space race?
And where are all the space watches?
I love space stuff; always have. And I absolutely love me some space watches.
Let’s clarify—I don’t mean just any watch that’s been to space. Plenty have made the trip up in astronauts’ luggage: Bulovas, Breitlings (shudder), a Rolex or two. Theses are “watches that have been to space,” but they aren’t space watches.
I’m talking about watches made for EVAs, watches that are “space resistant” the way divers are water resistant. I’m talking about a tiny metal box of gears and springs that can keep accurate time in zero gravity, in the vacuum of space, with the temperature swinging hundreds of degrees depending on whether you're in daylight or on the dark side of the world. I love that.
And that is just the function. The form, the aesthetic potential, of space and space travel is, literally, cosmic and wide open. The romance of the ‘60s space race, the color and crazy forms of Hubble telescope images, decades of science fiction—this is the sandbox designers could play in. But the thing is, hardly anyone bothers. And I don’t get it.
Thanks to SpaceX (and to a far lesser degree, Jeff Bezos’ middle-aged, post-divorce masculine insecurity) reinventing rocket tech, we’re in the middle of a space boom—more people are going, with more ways to get there, than ever before.
So where are the all the space watches to go with this new golden age of space travel?
Obviously you can’t talk about space watches without talking about Omega and the Speedmaster Moonwatch. This is the Godfather, the OG, the space watch.
I’m not here to knock the Speedie, and the updates Omega have made to the coaxial inside it in recent years are real and serious horology; not for nothing is Roger Smith paying his own money to wear one. It’s an icon.
But its iconic status is a limitation: you can’t screw with it. The case, the dial layout, even the anachronistic tachymeter (the ISS is orbiting at about 17,500 mph, who the hell is timing minute/miles up there?)—all of that stuff is basically untouchable.
Sure, there are anniversary specials and one-offs, like the Dark Side of the Moon and the Silver Snoopy. And I like them. But unless you count the X-33, which is digital, or that disgrace of a Happy Meal toy, I think its fair to say the Speedmaster is locked in.
No one is going to replace the Moonwatch in the public imagination until a watch goes to Mars, or until someone uses one to time the nukes they planted on the surface of an asteroid hurtling towards Manhattan.
But this means the field is open for everyone else to do something different. Except they aren’t.
With one exception . . .
The “other space watch maker” is generally acknowledged to be Fortis. They had the contract to supply the Russian space agency Roscosmos for years, the same way Omega does for NASA.
The Official Cosmonaut watches were big, stark things—high on utility and pretty low on aesthetics. They ran on a bought-in, standard movement which wouldn’t win any prizes for accuracy, but they were solid enough that you could—as one ISS astronaut did—use the watch as a hammer to bang a loose rivet back into place while on a space walk.
I like it. I have one. But it’s utilitarian to the point of being kinda, Soviet, you know? It’s Swiss made, sure, but make no mistake: This is a Commie space watch.
Anyway, last year Fortis quietly pulled the Cosmonaut line from production, with a reboot excepted early this year.
To hold us over they dropped a “Mars watch,” but it was distinctly meh. It looks like a Cosmonaut reskinned with a gimmick countdown bezel. It was only made for a practice mission—and that pretend mission got cancelled.
When the new Cosmonaut range didn’t land this spring I was disappointed, but I got it. This is not really the moment to be touting the company’s connection to Roscosmos, what with Russia running around Ukraine committing war crimes.
But last week Fortis rolled out something else they have been trailing for a few months, and man is it hot.
This is the new Stratoliner, developed with Sweden’s space agency. (Right? Who knew?)
There’s a lot to talk about here, but let’s start inside.
This piece is running on the WERK-17, Fortis’ new in-house movement, chronometer rated, made for them by Kenissi. In addition to all the normal space-spec testing they’ve been doing for years, Fortis floated the watch up into the stratosphere to see how it’d do, and then dropped it back down to earth.
That’s just plain badass.
Now let’s talk about the dial—textured with what Fortis is calling a space dust effect. It might actually be even better in the gray. They aren’t calling this a Moon watch, but that’s what this is gunning for—it’s an obviously lunar dial and good for them. I love it.
The layout is so clean. Look at the subdials: They are open, letting the markings float, creating a sense of orbital movement with the hands and the impression of open space across the whole watch face. Awesome.
The whole look is almost Bauhaus, but still built to the level of being a blunt instrument if you need it to be, give or take a display case back.
Forget the OmegaxSwatch bastard, this is a NOMOS/G-Shock star child. If the actual Speedmaster is the Godfather, the Stratoliner is pure Kubrick.
And, importantly, there is function to the form. Look at the blue.
The blue highlights mark the mission stage times on a Virgin Galactic stratosphere flight: On the subdial at six o’clock, it marks the initial 90 min mated climb. The outer chapter ring’s blue half tracks the first and last third of the 90 second rocket boost after separation, and on the subdial at 12 o’clock it marks out the fifteen minutes spent in zero-g.
Okay, Richard Branson is the loser at the space billionaires’ lunch table. Like him or not, Elon’s basically reinvented the way NASA goes to work and, Viagra jokes to one side, Blue Origin is a real enough rocket company. Either could stuff Virgin in a locker.
But the point is, this watch is seriously road tested and it is legit spacefaring in all its design queues. Just look at this dark side/light side, like an orbital path.
This is right in the zone—it hits you cold and strong, like a menthol to the back of the throat. And at a smidge over or under $5k depending on your strap choice? More of this, please.
Why isn’t everyone else doing stuff like this?
The closest we get is something like this year’s omnishambles from IWC. And I want to be clear, I love IWC. They were the brand that got me into watches in the first place. They are my default, my baseline. I had such high hopes.
Last year, when SpaceX launched Inspiration-4, the first all-amateur space flight (which orbited for three days out past the ISS), the four person crew went up with a special IWC each.
When I saw this, it went straight to my cerebral cortex like two lines of Columbia’s finest off a mirror. So bright, so intentional, so perfectly executed, but still fun—and without the unique, annoying flaw which each of the last three watches in the Mark series have managed to invent for themselves.
The four crew watches were auctioned for St Jude’s Children’s Hospital after the mission completed. Great watches, great cause, great idea. “When can I buy my own and how fast can you run my credit card?” I may or may not have obsessively emailed their customer service in all caps.
Ah-ha, they said, sorry we only made those four. This watch won’t get a production run.
I’d have been furious—but I just didn’t believe them.
Because the IWC CEO, Christoph Grainger, is such a whore for publicity stunts there was simply no way he was going to drop the chance to market a space watch complete with a charity tie-in and SpaceX mission pedigree. Or so I thought. I mean hell, IWC has a whole special line of Petite Prince variations, they’re begging to get into space, right?
I just assumed that this would be their big bang announcement at Watches and Wonders this spring.
Instead, they shat the bed and we got this:
It’s a white ceramic chronograph with a plain black dial, one of two new offerings in their Top Gun pilots’ watches. The white case is supposedly inspired by the frozen Lake Tahoe (near the air force base) in winter.
It’s the same watch, just with everything that made it work as a design concept taken out.
Lake Tahoe? No one gives a shit about some puddle in the Nevada desert, or believes it inspired a damn thing here. And no one in their right mind thinks that a desert-issue military watch in SURGICAL WHITE makes any kind of sense.
And at an asking price north of $10k? GTFOH.
Where is my damn space watch Christoph? And what the hell is wrong with you people?
But really, the people who should be cooking up a space watch, who I am praying are working on something like this right now, are the folks at Grand Seiko. If no one else in Switzerland is going to get in on the space action, surely the Japanese will, right?
They can do the tech, this is known. And don’t try to tell me JAXA wouldn’t listen to the pitch once it’s built.
And can you imagine what the boys and girls at Shinzukuishi would come up with for a dial and finishing on such a thing? They’ve been turning out insanely beautiful pieces of technical art based on the sekki, the Japanese calendar’s inflection points between micro seasons, for a couple of years now and the integration of whole-concept design into the entire watch is mind blowing.
And it isn’t like they aren’t half way there. They have already done a night sky dial, which is just nuts.
But with a rose gold case and priced over $40k, it’s not what you’d call a “tool watch.”
On the other hand, Seiko (not the Grand one) did the Spacewalk back in 2008 — which is a space watch in specs, but not doing anything really lovable in terms of design — and Spring Drive special edition which, running at $75,000, is not what you’d call a marketable prospect.
I’m just saying, somewhere between all three of these is a killer watch just waiting to be made. Come on GS, give it to me.
Carved into the inside ring of the Stratoliner’s case is Der Himmel ist nicht der ende der Welt.
The sky is not the limit, and the watch world needs to think bigger.