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 itís 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 ШТУРМАНСКИЕ in Cyrillic,) which had been issued to new graduates of the prestigious Orenberg Flight School along with their diplomas since the late 1940ís, 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 Sovietís 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 Navigatorís 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 watchís stainless steel snap back, the new watch was fully gasketed providing better water resistance.

As a matter of fact, the Sturmanskieís movement and case, were virtually identical to the civilian Sportivnie (Спортивные). 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 ПОЛЕТ or Poljot, meaning flight, in honor of Gagarinís groundbreaking mission. Where it currently resides as part of their present day collection.

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, is wearing what appears to be a Sturmanskie.


This watch is on display in the Museum of "Zvezdny Gorodok" (Star City), the Russian cosmonauts training center near Moscow.
picture copyright by

Time for a Space Walk

Without question, Gagarinís 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 wrist watch as the one Gagarin sported.

The Strela, (СТРЕЛА in Cyrillic meaning arrow) was a column wheel chronograph 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 chronograph 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 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.

This Sekonda was worn by Aleksey Aleksandrovich Gubarev on the Sojus 28 mission in march 1978.
Picture from the Book "time capsule" Copyright OMEGA SA

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.


Specific designed

'NII' is an abreviation for something like 'Science Technical Institute'. There was at least 2 'NII's associated with watchmaking.

NII-Chasprom was the most elite Horological institute of the Soviet era, who not only designed and built experimental electronic watches, but also did the certification of marine chronometers. In the early 1960s NII-Chasprom made some 'electronic' watches specifically for use in the space program. The format was 24-hour with date. Whether balance-wheel or tuning-fork is not explained anywhere, but certainly it wasn't quartz, because such technology did not yet exist in wristwatch size. A total of 29 were made. Belyaev allegedly wore one on the Voskhod-2 mission and Artyukhin on the Salyut 3.

A Changing Tide

The Soviets introduced a new chronograph caliber in 1976. Called the ОКЕАН, 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 below), very often accompanied cosmonauts on their trips to the cosmos almost as often as Poljotís were.


Digital Watches and the Soviet Space Program

Based on available footage it would appear that from about 1980 digital watches enjoyed widespread use in the Soviet space program. This is most likely due to the majority of missions being long duration within the confines of a space station. Under such circumstances, a compact watch with built-in alarm and chronograph would be highly useful. However an LCD cannot be safely used in open space, and there have been concerns regarding the shielding of the electronic components from the ravages of cosmic radiation. So for EVA duties the standard was, and remains, mechanical watches only.

Pictured above, 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.


German Democratic Republic (GDR)

Pictured below is the Ruhla Intercosmos.  The East German Cosmonaut Sigmund Jšhn was wearing this watch in 1978 on board of the soyuz-31 Mission. It was the first analogue quartz wrist-watch generation from the Ruhla Factory and was very similar to the Ruhla Cal. 24 Mechanical.



This is presumably the only watch besides the NII electric that was specifically designed for spaceflight and actually used for that purpose.

History of creation:

Story by Vladimir А. Dzhanibekov, twice the Hero of Soviet Union, pilot-cosmonaut of USSR:
It was September of 1985. "Salute Ė 7" station. It is midnight in Moscow. It is also our local time. Maintenance work going on... Ice age. The Flood at the station has already pasted. Victor Savinyh is cozily sleeping in a sleeping-bag in front of me. The "deaf" circuits without communication with Center are going.
- I wonder where we are flying? - I'm asking almost in sleep,
- Above clouds I assume...

Falling asleep I idly thinking that it would be great to have a watch with globe like the one at on the central stand. Or, with a map on the dial. But to have it on my hand... and without need to leave the warm sleeping bag to check... and soon getting back in again thinking that I was right and we were actually over clouds and under clouds were waters of the Atlantic ocean... all right,.. water is there where clouds are. Why our planet called the Earth and not the Water?.. This was the way the idea of "COSMONAVIGATOR" was born

That Salyut-7 rescue was a classic bit of flying by Dzhanibekov. He had to dock the spacecraft to a tumbling station with no beacon, just a laser rangefinder, sharp eyes and razor reflexes.


November 2004 Yuri Shargin has tested his private Shturmanskie based on a Poljot 31681 movement (complication variant of the famous 3133)  in space expedition. (Pictures from



Gallery of space related watches and clocks

Unknown watch used during a spacewalk




to Kevin (Strela) for all the writing and the elaborate researches