Sixty years ago today, on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, completing three orbits in 4 hours, 55 minutes during his Mercury-Atlas 6 flight. Of course, timing is critical for astronauts (and also for more ordinary pilots), so the community of watch collectors has shown great interest in the watches worn by astronauts. Just recently, for example, there has been published a database identifying the 1,899 watches that have been worn in space — Watches Used in Space Exploration.
To mark the 60th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic flight, we will have a look at the five watches that John Glenn wore during his years as a Mercury astronaut (April 1959 to January 1964). Two of these watches have received considerable attention – first, the Heuer stopwatch (reference 2915 A) that Glenn wore on the MA-6 flight and, second, the LeCoultre 24-hour indication watch that was issued to the seven Mercury astronauts, that Glenn wore in the period immediately before and after his flight (for example, during his training for the flight and for the celebrations immediately after the flight). But a closer look at the photos shows three additional watches that Glenn wore while a Mercury astronaut — a Breitling Cosmonaute, a Bulova Accutron Astronaut and a watch that he received on the recovery ship, which remains unidentified.
The stories of Heuer stopwatch and the LeCoultre “Mercury 7” watch have been told in considerable detail, so — rather than repeating these stories — this posting will present an “album” showing some favorite photos of Glenn wearing the two watches, around the time of his flight. We will use the “watch spotting” perspective, showing Glenn wearing them, for example, while he trained for his flight, as he walked to the Friendship 7 capsule, and in the limousine with President John F. Kennedy, for the celebratory parade. For detailed information about John Glenn’s use of the Heuer Reference 2915 A stopwatch, see our posting from 2006 – John Glenn’s Heuer. [The posting is old and ugly, and most of the links are broken, but the information and images are there!] For detailed information about John Glenn’s LeCoultre “Mercury 7” watch, see the posting on Hodinkee – My Hunt for John Glenn’s Watches.
In addition to the Heuer stopwatch and the LeCoultre Mercury 7 watch, we will briefly cover three other watches that John Glenn wore during his years in the Mercury program — (1) a Breitling Cosmonaute, which seems to have been identical to the one worn by Scott Carpenter on his flight in May 1962, (2) a Bulova Accutron Astronaut watch, which seems to have been issued to the Mercury Seven astronauts, and (3) an as yet unidentified watch that Glenn wore on the recovery ships and while he as undergoing debriefing and medical examinations, immediately after his flight.
Heuer Stopwatch, Reference 2915
Heuer catalogs describe the Reference 2915 A stopwatch as a “Long-Range 1/5 Second Timer”. The “long-range” refers to the fact that the stopwatch has 12-hour capacity, and the “1/5 Second” refers to the fact that the stopwatch displays 1/5 second increments.
There is no evidence to suggest that NASA selected the stopwatch for Glenn or that it was “certified” for his flight or “issued” to him. It appears that John Glenn procured the stopwatch on his own and then had someone at NASA (or perhaps a private seamstress) create the fabric bezel and elastic bands that allowed him to wear the stopwatch on his arm, outside his spacesuit. This would be parallel to the camera that Glenn took on his flight, which was purchased by Glenn and then modified by NASA engineers so that it could be used during his flight.
The Heuer stopwatch appears to have been used as a “backup” timer for Glenn’s flight. The instrument panel of the Friendship 7 capsule included a digital timer indicating “Time from Launch”, so Glenn must have wanted a back-up timer that he would wear on his wrist. The second hand of the Heuer stopwatch was propositioned at the 20-second mark, and the transcript for the flight shows that at the 17 second mark of the flight the “Capsule Communicator” (Cap Comm) said, “Standby for 20 seconds”, followed by the “mark” signal, and at the 23 second mark of the flight Glenn confirmed “Back-up clock is started.”
In 1967, NASA transferred Glenn’s Heuer stopwatch to the Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum, and it has been on display to the public at various Museum locations. TAG Heuer has created a replica of the stopwatch and straps, and this is on display at the TAG Heuer Muesum, in Switzerland.
Here is the Smithsonian page covering the stopwatch – Stopwatch, Friendship 7, National Air and Space Museum
LeCoultre “Mercury 7” Watch
The seven Mercury astronauts were introduced to the public in April 1959 and Alan Shepard made the first crewed Mercury flight, Mercury-Redstone 3, in May 1961. While they were training, a NASA engineer named Harold Johnson determined that, because they would be orbiting the earth every 90 minutes, and constantly moving from areas of daylight to areas of darkness, it would be important for the Mercury astronauts to be comfortable reading and communicating in “24-hour time” (sometimes called “military time.” For example, a normal watch with 12-hour indication might show that the time was 9:15 (Houston time), but the orbiting astronaut, seeing areas of daylight and darkness every 90 minutes, might not be able to determine whether it was 9:15 AM or 9:15 PM (“21:15”, in 24-hour time).
Accordingly, Johnson ordered eight watches with true 24-hour indication, one for each of the Mercury Seven astronauts and one for himself. The watches that were given to the Mercury Seven astronauts were the LeCoultre Quartermaster model, except that the dial and hands of the Quartermaster were refinished, to remove the ornate numerals and markers and to repaint them in the style of a military watch – the bright white Arabic numerals and hash-marks, with bright white hands. Reviewing NASA photographs we see most of the Mercury Seven astronauts wearing these watches, while they were training for their flights.
It appears in the period leading up to his flight and immediately after his flight, the LeCoultre Mercury 7 watch was John Glenn’s everyday watch. We see him wearing the watch while training and socializing with the other astronauts, while running along the Florida beach and while relaxing in the astronauts’ quarters.
We have “spotted” six of the seven Mercury astronauts wearing the LeCoultre Mercury 7 watch (all except Gordon Cooper), for example, shown below is Scott Carpenter wearing the LeCoultre watch.
Immediately after his flight, the celebrations of John Glenn as a national hero began. The first parade was in Cocoa Beach, Florida (where John Glenn was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal), then Glenn traveled to Washington, DC for a parade and address to Congress, and his East Coast swing ended in New York City, where he visited the United Nations and his ticker tape parade attracted four million people (by contrast, the parade for Charles Lindbergh had attracted three million). The final parade was in Glenn’s hometown, New Concord, Ohio.
Glenn wore a heavy winter coat for the Ohio, New York and Washington, DC parades, but his LeCoultre Mercury 7 watch is clearly visible during the Cocoa Beach, Florida parade. Glenn rode in an open-top limousine, with President Kennedy and General Leighton Davis (the Air Force Lieutenant General who was responsible for supporting the Mercury program), and we can see the hour hand pointing straight down, indicating 12:00 noon, on the LeCoultre Mercury 7 watch. Of course, this would have indicated 6:00 AM or PM on a watch with standard 12-hour indication.
During his flight on May 24, 1962, Scott Carpenter became the first astronaut to wear a Swiss wristwatch in space, when he wore a Breitling “Cosmonaute” on his Mercury-Atlas 7 flight. [The dial of that watch was marked “Navitimer”, rather than “Cosmonaute”, but the watch worn by Carpenter would soon be named the “Cosmonaute”, so we use that name in this posting.]
Each of the seven Mercury astronauts had a specific “specialty” and Carpenter focused on onboard navigational equipment. Carpenter had provided Breitling with some requirements for what he viewed as the ideal watch for the astronauts, and the watch that he wore on the MA-7 flight reflected these specifications.
Starting with the standard-production Navitimer, the chronograph that Carpenter wore had three significant modifications – (1) 24-hour indication, rather than 12-hour indication (as discussed above); (2) a simplified slide rule, which deleted the Hours / Minutes scale (HH:MM) scale, used to make time / distance computations (which would not be useful in space travel), and (3) a wider rotating bezel, so that an astronaut wearing thick gloves would be able to operate the slide rule.
[For additional information about the Breitling Cosmonaute, as worn by Scott Carpenter, see our posting A Noteworthy Watch — Breitling’s “Scott Carpenter” Cosmonaute.
When the estate sale of John Glenn’s personal property was conducted in March 2018, it came as a surprise to many enthusiasts that included in Glenn’s property was a Breitling Cosmonaute that appears to be identical to the watch worn by Scott Carpenter. The watch was subsequently sold by Phillips, in December 2019, for $156,250.
I have found only one series of photographs in which John Glenn is wearing the Breitling Cosmonaute. The photos were taken at a ceremony marking the retirement of Glenn from the Mercury program, and NASA staff members presented Glenn with a hunting rifle. These photographs show clearly that Glenn is wearing a Breitling Cosmonaute, the telltales being the wide bezel and the geometry of the case, crown and pushers. In addition to Carpenter and Glenn wearing the Brietling Cosmonaute, there are also photos of Mercury astronauts Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra wearing the Breitling Cosmonaute.
Seeing that John Glenn owned and wore a Breitling Cosmonaute raises the question of the circumstances under which he received the watch. The simplest explanation would be that when Breitling delivered the newly-designed Cosmonaute to Scott Carpenter, the company also made them available to the other Mercury astronauts.
Bulova introduced its Accutron tuning fork watch in 1960. The model that came to be known as the “Astronaut” had normal 12-hour time indication, but featured a rotating 24-hour bezel and a fourth hand that took 24 hours to rotate around the dial (sometime called a “GMT hand”). The user could rotate the bezel to select a specific time zone and then read that time in that second time zone using the GMT hand. The watch had no crown, but the time was set using a recessed “key” on the caseback next to the battery compartment. A distinctive stainless steel bracelet has coffin-shaped links. This model of the Accutron was issued to X-15 test pilots and the Mercury Seven astronauts, and during 1962 the name “Astronaut” was added to the dial.
In the photograph below (from 1964), John Glenn seems to be wearing an Accutron Astronaut, with the distinctive coffin-shaped links on the bracelet being the easy telltale for the watch.
Unidentified Watch Received on the Recovery Ship
For the MA-6 flight, there were 20 “recovery ships” positioned at various locations around the globe, so that Glenn and the Freedom 7 capsule could be recovered if he were to splash down outside the planned recovery zone. Glenn was picked up by the destroyer Noa approximately 20 minutes after his splash down, was then transferred to the aircraft carrier Randolph, and then he traveled by helicopter to Grand Turk Island, where he stayed for two days of debriefings and medical tests. Glenn arrived on Grand Turk Island at around 9:00 PM on February 20, 1962, and summed up his day as follows — “It was a long day and a very interesting one.”
According to NASA reports, each of the recovery ships for MA-6 was equipped with a post-recovery kit that would contain various items of clothing, toiletries and other items that Glenn would need for the time before he returned to the United States. One of the items included in each of the recovery kits was a wrist watch, and we see Glenn showing off this watch in some NASA photos.
It appears that Glenn wore his “recovery watch” for only a short period (aboard the recovery ship and on Grand Turk Island), and soon he switched back to his black-dialed “Mercury 7” watch, which he wore during the parades and other ceremonies that were held in his honor, when he returned to the United States.
Regarding John Glenn and the Mercury Program
NASA — Profile of John Glenn
NASA — Overview of the MA-6 Flight
NASA Report on MA-6 — Results of the United States First Manned Orbital Space Flight, February 20, 1962
NASA — This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
Regarding John Glenn’s Watches
OnTheDash Posting — Watching John Glenn — An Overview and Bibliography Covering of the Watches of John Glenn
On Hodinkee — My Hunt For John Glenn’s Watches
On Revolution — What Watches Did NASA Astronauts Wear Before the Speedmaster’s Flight Qualification?
Regarding Watches Worn in Space
Facebook Group — Space Watches
Moon Watch Universe — covers space-flown wristwatches
Collect Space is a news publication and online community for space history enthusiasts and professionals, and its readership includes collectors of space memorabilia collectors. Here is an interesting discussion of some watches worn by the Mercury astronauts.
February 20, 2022