Nothing else in modern history has captured mankind’s imagination like the depths of space. The limitless “final frontier” has been the stage for the Magellans of the modern era- men with names like Gagarin, Glenn, Leonov, and Armstrong who took our species off our fragile blue marble and into the heavens. The discoveries and heroism of these men are legendary, but naturally none of their explorations would have happened without the technology behind them. And alongside all of the cutting-edge rockets, computers, sensors, and life support systems stands the one piece the astronaut’s arsenal that (usually) isn’t custom built for the job- the astronaut’s watch.
While many of these stories are well-known to everyone in the watch world (looking at you, Speedy Pro), there are far too many important stories and watches that fall under the radar, starting with the very first manned spaceflight.
Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was not the Soviet space program’s first choice for Vostok 1. Although he excelled in all avenues of training and given glowing reviews by his Air Force handlers, Soviet brass favored Gagarin’s training partner Gherman Titov for the mission. In the end, the only real reason Gagarin was the first man in space was a last minute insistance by training commander General Nikolai Kamanin that the physically stronger Titov be saved for the more strenuous planned Vostok 2.
Gagarin, however, was still one of the finest cosmonauts the Soviet Air Force was able to produce for the job, and just as importantly was a model Communist, with a family that had distinguished themselves during the German occupation of their town in World War 2. So after two and a half years of rigorous selection and training, Senior Lieutenant Gagarin was loaded into the Vostok-3KA capsule at 7:10 AM the morning of Aril 12, 1961, and launched into the unknown. The entire mission lasted only a scant 108 minutes, and Gagarin’s capsule only completed one orbit of the Earth, but that hour and a half provided a wealth of understanding about spaceflight, proving human beings could endure both zero-G environments and the rigors of atmospheric re-entry. Even more importantly, however, was the political victory. Having the first man in space was a major blow for the Soviet Union, and put the United States further behind in the Space Race, the impetus they needed to charge to greater heights, and eventually, the moon.
The success of Vostok 1 was not only a victory for the Soviet space program, however. It was a victory for the 1st Military Watch Factory, as strapped to Gagarin’s wrist throughout the mission was a simple 17-jewel Sturmanskie. The Sturmanskie was introduced in 1954* as a special issue watch for Soviet Air Force pilots. It’s an attractive, simple 3-hand design, what might be described as halfway between a field watch and an A-type flieger with blued sword-style hands tapering to long stick tips paired with a red central seconds hand.
*A reader brought to our attention that a 15-jeweled Sturmanskie was actually introduced by the First Moscow Watch Factory sometime around 1949.
Like many Soviet watches, it’s equipped with a graphic dial, but unlike many of them it’s remarkably restrained. The stylized winged bomb with Soviet star drives home this watch’s military origins, and visually balances the Cyrillic branding that runs from 10 to 2. The watch is very small by today’s standards, with a case measurement of only 33mm, but in my opinion at least that along with its strong military DNA make this watch a prime candidate for a Bund strap, and could in that case become a cornerstone of a rugged military-inspired wardrobe. The 17J movement itself is robust and common, eventually finding its way into a variety of civilian Russian watches for Poljot, Pobeda, and Sportivnie and staying in production for decades.
Because of this, however, and the nuances of the Eastern European watch market, this has opened the floodgates to a pile of fakes and Frankenwatches and the rarity of legitimate examples has made shopping for one of these a risky proposition, and real ones are few and far between. When they do come up, however, the heritage behind these pieces makes them well worth the search. If originality isn’t necessary to you, the Gagarin Sturmanskie has been reissued several times, for the 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries of the flight, although the reissues are not exact copies. The 40th anniversary model, for example, has a quartz movement, and the 50th anniversary has been resized, but examples of these are available in the $250-300 range.