SAVOIR FAIRE Where no Swiss watch has gone before

5 min

The story of the TAG Heuer timepiece that went to space.

John Glenn reclining in space Suit

The date is February 20, 1962. The location is Cape Canaveral. The temperature according to old weather archives is close to 22°C (or 71.6°F). It’s the perfect morning for a walk, a run or in this case, a trip to space. NASA’s majestic rocket, the Atlas LV-3B, stands tall on its launch pad, glaring up at the clear blue Floridian skies. Attached to this launch vehicle is the Mercury-Atlas 6 spacecraft Friendship 7. Inside the shuttle sits a man who is going to make history. Strapped to his wrist is a watch that’s going to record that history. And at 9:47am, the man and his watch take off into the great beyond. Their mission? To become the first American and the first Swiss timepiece to orbit the Earth not just once, but three times. This is the story of astronaut John Glenn and the Heuer model, reference 2915A.

Time by his side

Before John Glenn’s historic flight, the only other human to orbit the earth was Yuri Gagarin in 1961. And before the Heuer, the only other watch in space was the chronometer worn by Gagarin. Glenn’s watch, a standard Heuer model, reference 2915A was capable of measuring time for 12 hours with an accuracy of 5ths of a second. It was fixed with elastic straps over the sleeve of Glenn’s spacesuit. The astronaut may have been flying alone, but time was right by his side. Together, they circled the Earth thrice, reaching a maximum altitude of 260 km and an orbital speed of approximately 7.8 km/s. The mission lasted 4 hours and 56 minutes. Glenn was hailed as a national hero. On February 23, President John F. Kennedy visited him at Cape Canaveral. His watch is now owned by the Smithsonian Institute. You’ll find it on display at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Space and time

Spacecrafts themselves have mission timers, but a chronograph gives astronauts another option for time-keeping. The astronauts on Apollo 13 needed to time engine burns, so they used the stopwatch function. During the moon landing itself, Neil Armstrong left his watch in the lunar lander as a backup for a malfunctioning timer. And on the Apollo 17 mission, astronaut Gene Cernan was pictured wearing three watches, all at once. Space travel relies on robust, accurate instruments that are easy to read and use. Qualities that define every good timepiece.

A timeless history

From sporting milestones to historic moments, our watches are, and have been, a part of many great stories. You can read about some of them here.