The Bulova Lunar Pilot: The Forgotten Space Race Contender

Posted by Jason Swire on June 23, 2020

While fans of space exploration are usually familiar with the Omega Speedmaster Professional as the watch of choice for NASA, there is another kid on the spacefaring block you might not have heard of. The Bulova Lunar Pilot is a modern take on a historic timepiece that was worn on the moon by astronaut David Scott, mission commander of Apollo 15.

Bulova Lunar Pilot reference 96B251 on rubber strap. © 2020. Bulova. All rights reserved.

David Scott was the seventh person to walk on the moon and the first to pilot a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), hence the name of the watch. While David was issued an Omega Speedmaster by NASA, during his second moonwalk the dial’s crystal popped off and was lost, so he switched to his personal Bulova chronograph for his third and final moonwalk for the mission.

This makes for a great conversation starter with Omega enthusiasts: “Oh you have the failed Moonwatch? I have the one that succeeded!”. On second thought, maybe don’t open with that line…

The Bulova chronograph David wore wasn’t a production watch, but rather a prototype developed to compete in NASA’s procurement contract for an official flight-certified astronauts watch. The original NASA memorandum included a statement of specifications each watch must meet:

  1. Accuracy Must not gain or lose more than 5 seconds over a 24 hour period. Desirable to have an accuracy equal to or better than 2 seconds per 24 hours.
  2. Pressure Integrity The chronometer must be immune to large variances in pressure to include a range from 50 feet of water positive pressure to a negative pressure of 10 millimeters of mercury.
  3. Readability All disks, bands, and figures must be readable in various lighting conditions. The chronograph must be readable under both “red” and “white” lighting conditions to or beyond a 5 foot candle illumination intensity. Either a black face with white figures and numerals or black on white is satisfactory. The chronograph should not cause glare at the high illumination levels. A stainless steel case with a satin finish is preferred.
  4. The chronograph must have stop-start elapsed dials with
    • Seconds to 1 minute
    • Minutes to 30 minutes
    • Hours to 12 hours or greater.
  5. The chronograph must be shockproof, waterproof, and anti-magnetic. In addition, the face cover must be shatterproof.
  6. The chronograph may be powered electrically, manually or the self-winding type; however, it must be capable of being manually wound and re-set.
  7. Reliability – the Manufacturer must guarantee the watch to operate properly under normal conditions for at least one year time period. Performance data and specifications should be supplied by the manufacturer. Manufacturer guarantee and/or warranty should also be included.
David Scott’s original Bulova chronograph, the only privately-owned watch to ever be worn on the moon. Sold at RR Auction in 2015 for $1,625,000 USD. © 2002–2020 RR Auction

What ultimately caused Bulova to lose this contract to Omega was a legislative issue rather than a qualitative one. The “Buy American Act” established in 1933 required a government-issued product to be at least 51% manufactured in the US. Bulova being an American brand headquartered in New York probably assumed that this law would make them the obvious choice, but at the time they were procuring complete chronograph movements from a Swiss subsidiary called Universal Genève.

Omega may have been a Swiss brand, but they partnered with American companies in order to comply with the Act, including case manufacture in Michigan by Starr Watch Case Company and case assembly and testing by Hamilton In Pennsylvania.

The modern Bulova Lunar Pilot was released in 2015 and draws inspiration from David’s watch and the prototype models that were sent to NASA for space selection testing in 1972, but with a thoroughly modern engine within.

While mechanical chronographs may have been the most reliable timepieces during the Apollo missions, it is undeniable that quartz technology offers far greater accuracy and resilience. For a watch originally designed to endure a gamut of harsh testing criteria by NASA, the choice of a quartz caliber thus makes a great deal of sense for the modern Bulova Lunar Pilot.

Apollo 15 Commander David Scott, 1971. NASA / Public domain

And Bulova wasn’t content with any old quartz movement. Being one of the first brands to develop electric tuning-fork timepieces, Bulova has a long history in cutting edge movement technology. For the Lunar Pilot, they are utilizing a unique three-prong quartz crystal that vibrates at 262Khz, or roughly 8x faster than a standard quartz oscillator.

This ultra-high frequency makes the watch more robust against external shocks or vibrations and provides timekeeping accuracy to within 10 seconds per year (!). That’s comparable to Grand Seiko’s much-lauded 9F quartz movements that utilize temperature compensation to achieve 10 spy accuracy, but at a much more affordable price.

An unexpected visual perk of this high frequency calibre can be seen at the running seconds sub-dial at 6 o’clock, where the seconds hand moves twice per second rather than the typical discrete one-second steps associated with most quartz movements. This gives the running seconds indicator an almost mechanical stutter-step quality, which is a great feature for those of us who still subconsciously (or consciously) associate the once-per-second ticks with “cheap quartz”.

Bulova Lunar Pilot reference 96B258 on bracelet. © 2020. Bulova. All rights reserved.

Visually there are some subtle differences between David’s original Bulova chronograph and the modern Lunar Pilot. The layout of the sub-dials has been changed, with a chronograph 1/10th of a second register at 3, running seconds at 6 and chronograph elapsed minutes at 9 on the Lunar Pilot, compared with a more traditional layout on the original of elapsed minutes at 3, hours at 6, and running seconds at 9.

David’s watch did not include a date window and used an older Bulova branding in a sans serif font, while the Lunar Pilot uses serifs in the Bulova text at 12 and wedges in a date window at 4:30. And of course the lume on the original has aged in the decades since it was worn on the moon and has the parchment colour to match, while the modern Lunar Pilot appears stark white in contrast.

Modern Bulova Lunar Pilot (left) compared to David Scott’s Bulova chronograph prototype (right).

The main point of contention with the Bulova Lunar Pilot is the size. At 45mm in diameter, 13.5mm thick and 52mm lug to lug, this is an unapologetically large timepiece designed for maximum legibility rather than goldilocks-zone wrist proportions.

The dial is beautifully balanced, with short rectangular indexes at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock and a double-width index at 12 to easily orient the watch face in the dark. The sub-dials and the minute track within the rehaut all feature circular graining, an unexpected level of finish in a watch at this price point. Perhaps the only objectionable design choice is the “262Khz” branding at 6, but given the cool points of the calibre within this watch, I can forgive a bit of dial-side bragging.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the Bulova Lunar Pilot is the price. For $675 USD RRP you can have a historically significant, technologically advanced, and handsome wristwatch with a story to tell, and the prices on the used market are cheaper still. According to WatchCharts analytics you can pick up a used Lunar Pilot for $293-360, and even if you hate it you can on-sell it quickly and easily with a sell rate of 95% and an average days-on-market time of only 5 days before a sale.

The real cost of entry here isn’t the price though, it’s the wrist girth required to pull off a 45mm watch. My own wrists measure 17cm or 6.7 inches in circumference and I struggle with anything over about 50mm lug to lug, so I would recommend this watch for those of you with a wrist size of 7 inches or above. If you’re blessed with David Scott levels of manliness though, this is perhaps the best sub-$1k chronograph you can get, period.

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