For this week’s Speedy Tuesday article, we talk to a guy who has been featured here before in 2015. He calls himself TLIGuy on the Australian based OmegaForums and is occupied with creating an overview of historic moments in manned spaceflight between 1965 and 2015, using Speedmaster case backs.

He started in 2013 with this massive project and we thought it would be nice to talk to him where he stands today. We ask him some questions about this impressive project that includes the involvement of many astronauts and NASA staff to be completed.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back Project

How long has it taken to assemble the collection and are you finished with the entire project?

I’m not finished yet; it is still very much a work in progress.  Just when I think I’m pleased with what I have assembled, I always find the desire and motivation to add an additional piece to the collection.  There are still a number of pieces I would like to add and a couple more that are currently in the works, so you have not seen the end of it. The first piece was signed in August 2013, and the most recent piece was signed by Gennady Padalka in November 2018. So it’s been just over 5 years to assemble the 26 pieces you see today.

Mission flown Speedmasters worn by astronauts are tightly controlled and are extremely valuable.   Did any astronauts express concern about signing a piece for your collection?

A concern would be an understatement.  When it came to Alan Bean, the first moonwalker I approached about the project, he was adamant that he would not sign a piece.  He was concerned that even though I assured him the case back that I would provide could not be represented as the case back from his flown Apollo 12 Speedmaster, he believed it was possible it could be misrepresented as flown if the piece ever found its way out of my possession.  I was disappointed, but I was determined to find a solution because if any of the other potential future signers had similar concerns they may not sign either.  After some thought, I came up with the idea of engraving the inside of case back with “FOR AUTOGRAPH ONLY – NOT MISSION FLOWN” and found a local engraver that could laser engrave the disclaimer inside the case back.  The engraving is so small it is not noticeable to the naked eye and is smooth enough that it could be written over.  I showed Alan Bean the first engraved piece, and he found it more than acceptable to sign after seeing it.  Alan Bean became the first of the six moonwalker pieces in the collection, signing over the engraving knowing that if the engraving has ever tampered with his signature would surely be destroyed in the process rendering the piece useless.  That was the beginning of what I call the “Bean Rule”.  If a signer shows any concern, or I think it may be an issue, I add the engraving to the case back.  Of the 26 pieces, 13 include the engraving.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Signed by Alan Bean

Did you receive any feedback from any of the signers about the collection?

I have received quite a bit of feedback from many of the astronauts, and I have been surprised at how positive their interest in the project has been. First, you have to understand that the astronauts to this day have a real affinity for the watches they wore on their missions, and there is no mistaking that a bond was formed between the two.  I think it’s with that in mind that they were so open to taking on the task of signing such a unique piece for the collection.  Think about what I’m asking them to do — I’m asking a man that is well into his 80’s or early 90’s to sign his name with all the additional information in the space the size of a US quarter or a Euro.  I think each of them made a special extra effort to make sure their piece looked as good as it could.  After all these years they are still Steely-Eyed rocket men with rock steady hands.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Engle with the signed case back

Any interesting stories from the astronauts about the Speedmaster you can share?

There was a discussion one day on one of the forums where someone was asking if astronauts needed to be reminded to wind their Speedmasters daily.  At the time I was beginning the preparation process with Ed Mitchell and was also engaged in an email conversation with another astronaut, I decided to pose the question to them both and see if I could get an answer to share.  I sent off an email to the astronaut asking “Do you recall getting a reminder from mission control or a specific checklist item reminding you to wind your watches daily?”  His reply was “We were all pretty bright guys back then and we were smart enough to remember to wind our watches.  It’s like shaving, you just do it every day.”  In a brief conversation with Dr. Mitchell I got an answer I wasn’t expecting at all.  When I asked him the same question there was a brief pause, and then he said: “I never worried about winding my watch, I wore a Rolex.”

Each piece in the collection follows the same format.  Three pieces Michael Collins, Alexei Leonov, and Gennady Padalka are different.  Why is that?

That is a great observation that those three pieces do not follow the same format as the others.  There is no mistaking Mike Collins’ contribution to Apollo 11, but it was tough for me to narrow down an exact moment in time to attribute to him alone.  With that in mind, I drew inspiration from the Apollo 11 mission patch where no crew members names appear, the idea being its design was representative of everyone involved that made the first landing possible.  I think having only July 20, 1969, date stands on its own for such a historic event, and I think his is one of the most attractive pieces for that reason.  I wanted the Padalka piece to stand out by being overtly Russian.  Cosmonaut autographs are interesting because if you don’t know who’s signature it is you might not be able to identify it.  For that reason, I asked that he print his name in Cyrillic to match how it appears on his Sokol suit name tag.  His time also deviates from the traditional use of GMT or UTC time and uses Moscow (MSK) time.  He also added 878 for the number of days he spent in space.  The Leonov piece is a whole different story.  I asked for and presented Leonov, through a handler in Germany, exactly how I wanted the piece to be signed.  It was to include ASTP and the date and time of the historic docking.  When I was notified he signed the piece I was thrilled and eagerly awaited its arrival from Germany.  When I opened the package I was surprised that it only contained his traditional name-only autograph.  Cosmonaut autographs are interesting because they traditionally only add additional inscriptions for close friends or family.  When I asked the person handling the autograph why I got only his signature I got a response, in what I can imagine being in a thick Russian accent, that summed up what I received nicely.  “You got what the General gave you and you will be happy.”

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Padalka Caseback

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Leonov Case back

Who was the first astronaut to sign a piece for your collection and do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

The first piece in the collection was signed by Walt Cunningham who has the distinction of signing his piece twice.  His first piece only included his name and Apollo 7 and was signed on the case back of my own 1968 Speedmaster.  It wasn’t until later when I decided to also include a mission milestone time and date that Walt signed the second piece you see now with his launch time and date.

All of the pieces are my favorites, but there are two I really enjoy having as part of the collection.  The first is Jim Ragan’s who for my collection is really where the story of the Speedmaster begins with his testing for NASA in 1965.  The second is the piece recently signed by Joe Engle.  He signs so infrequently and was so elusive that I thought it would never happen and was one of my most sought after pieces.  Not only does he wear one of the first radial dial Speedmasters on STS-2, but he also has the distinction of being one of the original X-15 test pilots and still wears a Speedmaster today.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

James H. Ragan case back

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Engle case back

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Engle with his Speedmaster and the signed case back

What piece in the collection was the most difficult to obtain?

The most difficult piece in the collection to obtain was recently signed this past November by cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.  Until it was done, it was my most sought after piece.  Padalka’s accomplishments are monumental.  Five missions including one onboard the space station MIR, 10 spacewalks, ISS commander, part of the TMA-16M year-long mission crew with Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko, and he holds the world record for the most cumulative time in space totalling 878 days.  The case back had been prepared and sitting on my desk for the last two years waiting for the opportunity to present itself.  Keeping in touch every few months with my contact, I found out he would be passing through Germany this past November.  As soon as I received the date, the piece was sent via Fed Ex arriving three days later just in time for his arrival and signature.  I consider his piece one of the greatest accomplishments of the collection, yet strangely it seems to be the least acknowledged and appreciated piece in the collection for some reason.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Padalka doing the signing

Did you also involve Omega? Did they help you in some way or showed an interest?

No, Omega has not endorsed or been involved in the project.  It has been and continues to be my hope, that they will eventually come across the collection and take an interest in it.  With all the excitement building up to the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11, I think the collection would be a great addition to display during the celebratory events they have planned this year or maybe even at one of your Speedy Tuesday events.  Until the opportunity arises, I live by the motto “Have case backs, will travel.”

What are you going to do with the collection now?  Will enthusiasts be able to see it in the flesh?

I have no immediate plans to do anything with the collection other than continue to add pieces, share them with the community, and continue to tell the story of man’s greatest adventure with the Speedmaster.  While I think the pictures of the pieces are attractive and tell a great story, the images do not do them justice.  The pieces are stunning when seen in person and as a whole.  I hope that someday, sooner than later, the collection will find a home where it can be enjoyed by others as much as I enjoy them.

What is your favorite personal Speedmaster?

My favorite Speedmaster has to be the one I wear most often which is my mint condition 145.022-68 Transitional Speedmaster.  Not only does it carry the autograph of Walt Cunningham that flew the Apollo 7 mission in 1968 it is also my birth year which makes it extra special.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Walt Cunningham Case Back

Which Speedmaster is your holy grail watch?

The watch I would like to track down and add to my collection would be an International Space Station flown 2nd generation X-33 worn by a cosmonaut.  I think it’s something that will eventually be added to my collection, but just like adding pieces to the case back collection the process of tracking down and obtaining the flown watch will be slow and methodical.

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Speedmaster Signature Case Back

Is there anything else you want to share with our readers about your impressive project?

I would like to share my sincere thanks to everyone that has made this collection possible.  From the astronauts and cosmonauts that have participated in the project as well as those that have helped me acquire the pieces and supported it along the way. Fratello watches also deserves a great deal of appreciation as you were to first to take an interest in the collection and share it with your readers when it was just the original 14 pieces.  I also would like to thank the Omega Forums and  where the moderators have allowed me to share and continue to update the collection.  I would also like to thank Neil Smith for lending his artistic talent and help to bring the collection to life with his videos and his work on the new complete collection image.  Finally, thank you to all the forum members that continue to follow my posts and collection updates.  It is your continued interest in the project that keeps me motivated to continue being an active member of the community.

Thank you for your time and incredible work!