The interwebz watch forums got me again. A watch I would have otherwise never heard of jumped to front and center of my obsession. This time it was the Bulova “Lunar Pilot.” A forum member posted a photo of his in a “WRUW” (what are you wearing) thread, and I had to know what it was. I am weak! And so began the furious late night internet hunt for more information . . .
It turns out that the Bulova Lunar Pilot story is quite the Space Oddity.
The only “Moon Watch” is Omega! Negative, Ghostrider
In 2015, a different story emerged. Apollo 15 Mission Commander David Scott was wearing his NASA-issued Omega Speedmaster when the watch suffered a spontaneous “major malfunction.” The crystal popped out during EVA #2 (extravehicular activity a.k.a., “moon walk”).
He asked permission from NASA to use his personal back-up watch for EVA #3. Roger that, Falcon. His back-up watch was a Bulova prototype that didn’t make the NASA cut (OMEGA won the contract). The prototype was gifted to him by Bulova.
Since OMEGA watches were government issue, they were returned (and reportedly reside in the Smithsonian). Commander Scott kept his Bulova and stuck it in a safe deposit box. In 2015, he decided to auction it off. It fetched $1.6m. That’s when the light bulb went on at Bulova Headquarters. They produced a replica watch and sent it to market.
Some horological pedants fuss about it being a quartz movement as opposed to the mechanical movement of Commander Scott’s prototype Bulova. (More later about why quartz is cool with this watch.)
Some WIS (watch idiot savants) think it’s “too big” at 45mm across and 52mm lug-to-lug. It IS a big watch. But it’s an astronaut watch! It’s supposed to be big and highly legible. For reference, my wrist (above) is 7″.
Dark side of the moon v2.0
Earlier this year, our own Robert Farago wrote, “OMEGA Moonwatch – Buy Something Else!”
Yes, sir! While Commander Scott’s watch had a stainless steel finish, I chose the black colorway for my Lunar Pilot. It’s available on any number of online dealer sites. (It’s not showing on the Bulova website at the time of writing.) The stainless finished model is still on the Bulova website.
Given the price, Bulova Lunar Pilot’s watch is impressive, as is the box. It comes on a nice faux leather pillow, nestled in a box with satin pulls. The warranty card, instructions, and a booklet on the history of the watch designed to go to the moon lie under the top layer.
Combined with white indices and pencil-shaped hands, the black dial is uber legible. The dial offers quite a bit of depth with a raised tachymeter rehaut under the crystal. The chapter ring and subdial faces are a step below the main dial face. Hour indices are applied to the main dial face. Combined, these features create a pleasing 3D relief.
The back of the watch is inscribed with a tribute to the Apollo 15 mission, including the specific location on the moon where the Bulova was worn.
The crystal, prominently protruding from the top of the case, is worrisome to some of the prolific hand-wringers on the watch forums and groups. Others simply think it looks cool.
A “signature” feature of the Lunar Pilot: the hinged paddle chronograph buttons, presumably designed for use with space suit gloves.
The pushers have minimal play; they engage with a highly tactile click when activated. They render a “sleeker” appearance than traditional pedunculate, wart-like chronograph pushers.
The Lunar Pilot’s hands and hour indices are painted with a lume that glows bluish rather than green. It’s also weakish.
Even after a charge, it starts dim, and it finishes dim. The lume lasts through the night and remains visible . . . barely . . . when your eyes are acclimated to the dark. The lume on the chrono sweep hand serves no purpose.
Strap On, Strap Off
My biggest beef with this watch: the stock leather pseudo-NATO strap. I’m quite certain more money went into the box than the strap. Simply put: The strap is the suckage. Absolute crap. While the flimsy thin leather is supple and comfortable, it looks cheap and tends to hold kinks.
The real problem: the end of the strap has nowhere to go after threading it through the first keeper, which is fixed next to the buckle. The second keeper can slide, but it stops short of a position where the end of the strap can be secured. The tip just barely reaches it and slips out to flop around freely.
In keeping with the “moon watch” theme, I ordered a replica of the NASA Velcro strap from an outfit in England called, Kizzi. They make the straps to the exact NASA specs and even use “nylon loop tape sourced from 1970’s U.S. Defense Supply Agency stock.”
It should be a good piece of kit. Unfortunately, my shipment got hung up in UK postal limbo for a couple of weeks. (I’ll add photos when it arrives.) In the meantime, I ordered a few straps from Amazon. The $27 Barton leather strap is very comfortable and the keepers work.
Update with the Kizzi NASA-spec strap:
From the Kizzi website: “Made with original vintage loop tape of exactly the same type used on Apollo and Skylab missions, this is the official short NASA watchband shown in design drawing SEB12100030 as “-210” at 11½ ins and (for Apollos 14 & 15 only) “-209″ at 9½ ins length. Nylon loop tape sourced from 1970’s U.S. Defense Supply Agency stock.”
The quartz movement in the Lunar Pilot isn’t just any quartz movement. The typical quartz movement uses a crystal vibrating at 32,768 cycles per second. The Bulova branded “Precisionist” movement uses an “ultra-high frequency” quartz crystal. It vibrates at eight times the rate of a traditional crystal: 262,288 cycles per second, or 262 kHz.
This provides two benefits. First the central second hand (for the chrono) sweeps like that of a mechanical watch, instead of a single step per second. Secondly, the movement is rated at +/-10 seconds per YEAR. Compare that to the +/- 15 seconds per month common for traditional 32 kHz quartz movements.
ETA (5/29/21): It took 2-1/2 months to lose 1 second (measured on 5/8/21) and is still there today. So, the average has been -0.01 s/d. That works out to -3.65 seconds per year at this point!
The Lunar Pilot’s chronograph is of limited practical value. The central seconds hand measures the seconds in chronograph mode. The subdial on the right (3 o’clock) measures 1/20th of a second. The left subdial (9 o’clock) measures minutes, up to 60.
Because the scale of the minute subdial has 60 divisions, it’s a bit difficult to read with precision, even with my readers. The bottom subdial (6 o’clock) is a “small seconds” for the current time, which does a Texas Two-Step. Each second is two-ticks of the hand.
The original Bulova prototype “moon watch” had a 12-hour chronograph subdial at the bottom and a 30-minute subdial on the right. That would have been more useful, even here on Earth.
Until now, owning a piece of horological space history would cost you over five grand (OMEGA Speedmaster “Moon Watch”). Today, you can own the “other moon watch” for three hundred and change. Strap it on, get your astronaut on, while singing “I hope my watch don’t break, walking on the moon.” Like Scott’s OMEGA.
Model: Bulova “Lunar Pilot” Model #98A186
Price paid: $338 (Amazon)
Case: Matte black ion-plated stainless steel.
Crystal: Sapphire (flat).
Lume: Hands and hour indices.
Dimensions / weight: 52 x 45 x 13.5-mm / 112 grams (with leather strap)
Movement: 262 kHz (Ultra-High Frequency) quartz
Accuracy: +/- 10 seconds per year.
Battery life: ~2 years.
Water resistance: 50 meters.
Functions: Analog hours, minutes, small seconds. 60-minute chronograph. Tachymeter.
RATINGS (out of five stars):
Design * * * * *
There’s a reason it resembles the OMEGA Speedmaster: both watches were designed to meet the same NASA specs. It’s a big astronaut watch and it’s almost perfect.
Legibility * * *
White-on-black is as easy as it gets to read. Lume could be better. The chronograph minute subdial is hard to read.
Comfort * * * *
Because of the wayward strap end the stock strap is effectively disposable. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket straps that can fix that problem.
Overall * * * *
A mechanical movement would be more “authentic” (and certainly far more expensive). The Lunar Pilot’s super-accurate 262 kHz quartz makes up for that. It’s a genuine part of space history attainable to those who can’t afford the $5k Speedmaster.
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