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From Sky to Space: The story of the Breitling Navitimer

Here’s a brief history of one of the legends of spaceflight.

In an industry that’s long had a love affair with pilot watches, the Breitling Navitimer occupies a rare position. This is one of the watches that went to space: a small group that, among a few others, counts the Omega Speedmaster, the Seiko “Pogue” 6139, the Sturmanskie Gagarin, and the Fortis B-42 Cosmonaut in its ranks.

And why is this important?

Of the hundred billion people or so that have ever existed, only a few under 600 have been to space, and these watches weren’t even on every trip—that’s how small this club is. And sure, that might change over the next few years, when commercial space flights will likely be available, but these remain the pioneers: the ones carrying just that extra little bit of history.

Naturally, the watchmaking houses consider this to be a distinguishing mark, and they’ve put a lot of work into keeping the heritage alive. Breitling, in particular, has constantly renewed its line of Navitimers over the years.

The Navitimer wasn’t always meant for space—not in the beginning, anyway. It started out as the next step of development from the Chronomat.

(Today, the Chronomat looks nothing like the Navitimer, but that’s a different story for another time.)

The Navitimer was launched in 1952, with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) logo on the dial. Right there, you could tell it was meant for the air.

The 2015 limited-edition Breitling Navitimer AOPA: an homage to the original. / Photo credit: Breitling

One of the Navitimer’s hallmarks, aside from the chronograph that the manufacture is known for, is the slide rule on the bezel. This is meant to be a mechanical analog computer for the wrist, and it’s a handy thing for people who take to the air. By turning the bezel, you can use the slide rule to multiply, divide, and compute percentages and ratios. This allows pilots to determine things like speed, distance, and fuel consumption. Today, you’re probably going to use it to determine the ratios on an upsized cocktail, but back then, when technology wasn’t as advanced, pilots could rely on the slide rule.

The Navitimer saw widespread use in aviation, being employed by air forces around the world (Iran, Yugoslavia, Algeria), but its role as one of the first watches in space was what cemented its reputation.

On May 24, 1962, Commander Scott Carpenter—a veteran aviator from the Korean War—was selected to be part of Project Mercury, NASA’s first manned spaceflight project. The goal of Project Mercury was to go around the Earth’s orbit three times, with Carpenter piloting the Aurora 7 capsule.

Carpenter had approached Breitling to develop a watch that he could use for the mission, and he thought that the Navitimer would make a fine choice. Only, he’d requested it to have a 24-hour dial. By the time of the launch, Breitling had delivered: they gave Carpenter the variant he requested, which was named the Cosmonaute.

It was then when the watch made history. Carpenter went around the Earth’s orbit three times, the Navitimer Cosmonaute on his wrist becoming one of the first watches in space.

Carpenter before the Aurora 7 launch / Photo credit: Breitling

Since then, Breitling has come up with Navitimer variants but still looks to its past for inspiration.

Earlier this year, its Baselworld presentation included a faithful reproduction of one of the early Navitimer designs from 1959, and Breitling went as far as creating a new hand-wound movement to keep it as close to the original as possible. But, perhaps more importantly, Baselworld also had the Navitimer 1 Automatic 41 in the lineup.

It’s a reimagined version that does away with the chronograph, resulting in a sleeker, less busy look that still evokes the spirit of aviation with its slide rule.

The Navitimer 1 Automatic 41 / Photo credit: Breitling

It certainly looks more wearable outside of a cockpit, and it will likely appeal to people even beyond the specialty market that Breitling is aimed at. And that’s always a good thing: this way, a legend from the past becomes relevant in the now.

From 1952 to the present, the storied Navitimer continues to find new life as Breitling develops it further. And who knows, in the coming age of commercial space flight, the Navitimer may yet see the stars again.