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A Brief History of Soviet Space Watches

October 28 2004 at 12:20 AM
Strela  (Login PoljotStrela)


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 ˜’“Œ€‘Šˆ… 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 (‘ïîðòèâíûå). 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 Ž‹…’ or Poljot, meaning flight, in honor of Gagarin’s groundbreaking mission. Where it currently resides as part of their present day collection. Here a picture taken of Gagarin on that historic day. His Sturmanskie is seen inside the yellow circle.

In adition to the Soviets putting the first man in space, the Soviets were also first in putting a women into space as well. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, on board Vostok 6, spent three days in space orbiting the earth 48 times before re-entering the atmosphere and parachuting safely to earth. Tereshkova, seen here in the photo to the left, is wearing what appears to be a Sturmanskie.

Time for a Space Walk

Without question, Gagarin’s flight has left an indelible mark on the annuls of manned space flight. But Gagarin was not alone in being first among his peers. On June 12, 1965, Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov became the first person to leave his space capsule and perform a space walk. He had on his wrist an equally special and well made wristwatch as the one Gagarin sported.

The Strela, (‘’…‹€ in Cyrillic meaning arrow) was a column wheel chrono of an earlier Venus base design. The watch had two registers, a 45 minute elapsed time totalizer and constant seconds hand, as well as a central chrono hand that measured seconds. The watch had a chrome plated, base metal construction and was fitted with a stainless steel snap back. On early watches, the inside of the watches back are heavily Damascened, in an engine turned manner. The watch, introduced in 1959 was originally only available for use by the BBC, the Soviet air force.

The watch, which was available with various dials with both non-luminous and luminous types, with tacymetric and telemetric chapter rings. There seems to be some debate about which version of the Strela Leonov wore. However, most seem to feel it was either a non-luminous Cyrillic marked watch or an early, white-dialed luminous piece. The Strela was a central piece of flight gear issued to cosmonauts for over 20 years, and the watch has gained the reputation of being the Russian equivalent to the Speedmaster.

The Soviets retired the Strela in 1979, three years after the introduction of their new 3133 caliber chronograph. Recently, new versions of the watch has been reissued by Poljot. The watches differ in that they are in larger, all stainless steel cases, and utilize Poljot's 3133 caliber movement. They are otherwise very faithful renditions of the original watch.

A Changing Tide

The Soviets introduced a new chronograph caliber in 1976. Called the ŽŠ…€, meaning Ocean, the watch was solely intended for use by the BMF, the naval branch of the military. Later, other official versions, such as the Sturmanskie, were introduced. Whether or not the 3133 was meant as a replacement for the Strela, it soon became clear that that was precisely what it was. Based on the Valjoux 7734 of which the soviets had purchased the machinery from the Swiss in 1974 to begin their own production of their new caliber. The new 31 mm movement was a less complex and more robust movement than the jewel-like 3017. A simple cam design replaced the earlier watches more complex, and costly to produce, column wheel activation. And for the first time in history a Russian chronograph was equipped with shock protection.

At 38 mm wide and 12 mm high, with 18 mm sized lugs, the watch was equipped with unique crystal that protruded from the case a fairly steep 3 mm high. The watch came in both chrome plated and stainless steel cases. Stainless steel cases having stainless steel crowns and pushers and chrome cased watches chromed crowns and pushers. All early versions of the watch had a crown at nine that turned a bezel under that purposefully high crystal that had a second hour chapter ring printed on it, making keeping track of a second time zone effortless. Like the earlier Strela, many different versions of the 3133 made there way into space on various missions. Of note was the ill fated Soyez 23 mission, that left two cosmonauts for dead atop a cracked, frozen lake bed overnight until rescue teams could safely reach them.

The 3133 was for official-use only until 1983, when it became available to a larger public marketplace, including export varients. The 3133 is still in production today. A slight variation of the standard 3133 is the hacking 31659 caliber version Sturmanskie that was, like earlier Sturmanskies, an air force-only piece. The watch is essentially a standard 3133 that has been re-engineered with a small lever that applies pressure to the outside of the balance when the crown is pulled out, freezing the balance and hacking the watch. Interesting to note, in regard to this watch, is the lack of the rotating bezel and subsequently the crown at nine.

Below to the left is a picture of Japanese journalist-cosmonaut, Toyohiro Akiyama taken during his historical flight.

Another Soviet space first, Akiyama was the first private citizen to buy passage on a space flight. Akiyama was a member of the Soyez TM-11 mission that linked up with the Mir space station. The cost, a reported 28 million dollars, was paid by TBS, the Tokyo Brodcasting System. While in space, Akiyama sent a series of live broadcasts back to the earth. The watch Akiyama wore was an all stainless steel, Soviet Air Force, 31659 caliber, hacking Sturmanskie.

Of course, these few watches are not the only watches to be worn by cosmonauts. Just about any watch that the Soviets produced could have been worn in space. The list of the watches that were permitted for space flight was not as strictly regulated as say, NASA does. And it is not entirely uncommon to see cosmonauts wearing any variety of seemingly inappropriate types of watches.

So, if the watch kept accurate time and possessed no real safety threat, it was considered allowable gear. Vostoks and the quartz digital watch, the Elektronika, (like the one seen on cosmonaut V M Afanasyev in the photo), very often accompanied cosmonauts on their trips to the cosmos almost as often as Poljot’s were. Pictured above to the left, is a Belarusian-built Elektronica 52b. The Elektronika watches had quartz digital modules, came in chrome-plated cases made of base metal. The watches did, however, have corrosion resistant stainless steel backs.

This message has been edited by PoljotStrela on May 17, 2008 5:58 AM

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