Space exploration is a recurring topic when it comes to watches. Of course, the Omega Speedmaster a.k.a. Moonwatch is the reference when it comes to space-linked timepieces, however, it’s not the only watch that made it to space. Recently, we discovered that another watch had been launched via a resupply mission to the ISS, a custom-made pilot’s watch, by Dave Sutton, worn on a Marine Nationale strap by our good friend Erika (from ErikasOriginals). Obviously, we wanted to know more about this very cool story.
Dave’s custom-made watch and Erika’s MN strap
The watch itself is not branded or produced by one of the well-known brands. Much more interesting is the fact that the watch that was launched into space is a custom-made watch. Dave Sutton made a limited run of this watch, and it’s built with Seiko parts and some parts were supplied by friends. Dave has been as a professional pilot and professional diver (as the boating coordinator for the US research efforts in Antarctica). He taught at both the USN and USAF Test Pilot Schools in Russian MiG jet fighters for just over 18 years.
During his career, he wore a Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 1665, which he bought second-hand back in the late 1970’s. He started his watchmaking hobby when he almost lost that Sea-Dweller in the sea, when pulling up the anchor of his boat one day, and he realized that it was far too valuable as a family heirloom to risk losing it. As he explained to us: “I wanted to replace it with a tool watch that I could wear for the rest of my life, and not finding anything I really liked at a price point accessible to a working professional pilot, I decided to build my own, based on the workhorse Seiko SKX series.”
After gaining the skills to reliably assemble a quality watch, he decided to do a limited run of identical watches and distribute them to old friends, as a token of esteem. Based on the Seiko SKX, he then modified it to incorporate both dive watch and pilot watch elements – as he’s both a diver and a pilot himself. Dagaz Watch provided the dials and casebacks, Dave Murphy provided bezels; the bezel is a homage to 1960’s dive watches. The dial is classically inspired by a German pilots watch, with sword-shaped military hands. The trident on the dial represents land, sea, and sky. Only the case from the original watch was used. All other parts were upgraded with aftermarket and custom parts.
The project ended up with “more or less” 50 watches, backed by some of his friends – flight test colleagues, professional divers, actively serving soldiers, naval officers, helicopter pilots, fighter pilots, mountain SAR team members, and other “Real Men”. Being a military-inspired – and military-serving piece – the obvious decision was to fit it with a military-inspired strap, which was provided by Erika from ErikasOriginals – more about these Marine Nationale reissued straps in our dedicated article.
The space story – How did sutton’s watch get to space?
One of the gents wearing a Sutton watch happens to be Dave’s friend. He works in the space launch business and provided the watch to NASA for a mutual colleague – whom we will call “Maker” – a graduate of the USN Test Pilot School and who became a NASA astronaut. They figured that “Maker” could use a good watch up in the ISS, and having missed the opportunity to get the watch to him in time for the Soyuz launch, they decided to try to get it launched on a resupply mission to the ISS.
Once a lot of paperwork and permissions were done, the watch was sent to NASA, certified as non-dangerous, decontaminated by exposure to gamma radiation to ensure it wasn’t carrying some virus or bacteria to the ISS, and was launched into orbit. The watch and its MN strap were then unloaded into the ISS a few days later, and it was onboard until Maker ended his mission, and was then brought back on the Soyuz.
The photo of the watch in weightlessness was taken by “Maker” in the vestibule of the ISS, with the Earth behind it – no photo of the watch worn by “Maker” was taken, as astronauts are very cautious about bumping up against NASA regulations regarding exploiting their position for any commercial purposes.
What will happen to this watch now? Dave’s answer shows how complex working within NASA regulations can be: “Since the watch and its strap were sent to “Maker”, rather than being carried by him as his personal property, he’s not allowed to keep it. So, under the agreement with NASA I signed, it will be returned to me as a “Memento” which I cannot sell or transfer for gain. I suppose I’ll just wear it myself until I meet “Maker” at a Society of Experimental Test Pilots Symposium and then I’ll give it to him “on Earth” where NASA can’t complain about it.”
Reactions about having your own watch or strap in Space
How did the watch make it to Space?
DAVE – Through a very good friend who is a colleague of mine through my Aviation work, and who is a mutual colleague of the astronaut recipient. He was able to navigate the very arcane NASA rules for sending a gift up to the International Space Station and was instrumental in getting the watch approved for launch. At a launch cost of many thousands of dollars an ounce, this isn’t something they do very often. I went down to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch myself. You can’t help but stand there with tears streaming down your face to watch such an incredible thing as an orbital space launch, knowing that a part of you is there.
What was your reaction when you saw a photo of your watch in weightlessness?
DAVE – A big relief. I’d waited for a photo for the entire duration of the mission and was getting a bit worried to be truthful. Only after the mission was over did I receive the image. What turns out is that there are very strict rules about commercializing any aspect of national spaceflight and there are strict rules that need to be followed. I was very happy to finally see the image, which is incredible.
Apart from being proud of this epic occasion, what signal does that send out regarding the quality of your watch?
DAVE – I’ve just received the watch back, and what’s most pleasing is that it’s running fine and that the enormous G loads and vibration loads of both launch and recovery didn’t damage it or shake anything loose. When you press on a hand you need to “feel” it set correctly, and to make sure that all of the hands are parallel and not “clashing”, which would stop the watch. With the tiny clearances and huge G forced trying to move things around during launch and recovery my main concern was about this. The watch survived, runs great, and looks good on my wrist, which is where it’s sitting right now.
How did you learn about the fact that one of your straps went into space?
ERIKA – I remember I was just back from Baselworld still high on the reception there. I met so many nice people and talked about possible collaborations and new projects. The last year has been a rollercoaster of highs strengthening my belief that I have only just begun to scratch the surface. When I got a message from Dave: “Hey, just so you know: one of your straps will be launched to ISS today on a watch I built for one of the astronauts. You should check out the launch on the internet.” Next thing I know I was jumping up and down in front of my computer watching my strap on its way to space at 28,000km/h. How cool is that!!
Honestly… between us, isn’t it the coolest thing on Earth to have your product photographed in space?
ERIKA – Now I have the picture to prove it! Needless to say, it will get a special place on the wall of my new atelier!
Editor’s note: we decided to remove this article for a few hours, as we needed to fact-check the story and if this watch actually went to space. After reasearch and discussions with people from Space Launch-related companies and people involved in this story, we can confirm that the watch and Erika’s strap went to space.