Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Thoughts on the 2022 Deepsea Challenge



Why the Deepsea Challenge Is Rolex's Moonwatch


What makes explorers brave is not just the decision to volunteer for a risky mission, but to press on when things break, danger mounts, and aborting the mission is a justifiable option. 

During Apollo 11's powered descent to the moon, in 1969, there were a total of five unexpected computer alarms in the last 12 minutes. These alarms all indicated that Eagle’s computer system was overloaded, with the last of these alarms less than three minutes before landing, at 500 meters above the Moon. 

The computer was guiding the spacecraft towards an unsafe touchdown point in the rugged, boulder-filled surface. With low-fuel-indicator lights flashing, Neil Armstrong took manual control and flew to a safe landing spot beyond the crater. 

On opposite ends, U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard, in 1960, were landing on the deepest spot on the planet, Challenger Deep. Challenger Deep is more than 35,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean, at the southern end of the Mariana Trench. 

They were descending through depths no humans had reached before when suddenly the cabin of their bathyscaphe violently shook and a loud cracking noise was heard. 

They turned off everything on board that made a noise, as they attempted to discover the origin of the crack. The plexiglass viewport that was used to enter the sphere had cracked in several places. But they pressed on for another 3,000 feet and completed their mission to land on Challenger Deep.


When Rolex released a new Deepsea Challenge on Nov. 1, carrying for the first time a commemorative caseback engraving (two dates referring to the first two dives to the Mariana Trench), the watch immediately reminded me of the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch whose caseback engraving links the watch to space missions.

To be sure, Rolex watches have gone to space multiple times as recorded in these pages. Rolex GMT-Masters often adorned the wrists of prominent astronauts including Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Michael Collins who was the third man in the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Still, Rolex has never claimed a stake in the space conquest. (Rolex's webpages about the GMT-Master still refer to Pan Am and Concorde pilots, but eschew any mention of astronauts.) 

After giving myself a week to ponder this latest release, I realized Rolex wanted to claim the greatest depth on Earth, Challenger Deep, as its own the way Omega has claimed the moon. And it must be important enough for Rolex if for the first time ever it decided to engrave the caseback with historical references.

Rolex wants you to know it was part of the first expedition to go to the deepest spot on the ocean floor. And it was also part of James Cameron's expedition when he broke the record for first solo dive to Challenger Deep.

The deep-sea exploration and the space program both include building and testing crafts that go into virgin and inhabitable worlds. In both cases, crew members sit cramped inside a module untethered from any human rescue possible, staring through a window into a dark, black emptiness in an environment as strange and hostile as any to be found on other planets.

The picture of Lt. Don Walsh sitting in the confined bathyscaphe holding a U.S. flag while at the bottom of the ocean floor looks like a picture that could have been taken in a space capsule. It's also the picture equivalent of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary atop the Everest.

In my research for this article, I found a 1960 newsreel, which is using a U.S. Department of Navy footage of the bathyscaphe's return to the surface. 

You can hear the old-timey, staccato voice of the reporter saying: "The mission recorded in these event's Department films is as great a feat, and as important a scientific breakthrough, as will be the first trip of man to the moon."

Jake shared with me the vintage ad below, which dates back from the 1960s, showing how Rolex tied the ocean to "inner space" (as opposed to outer-space). The ad is for a Submariner, but the Sea-Dweller is a Submariner variant.

Following their successful mission, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard were invited by President Eisenhower to the White House, the way astronauts would be greeted by Presidents in years to come. 

Lt. Walsh received the Legion of Merit and Mr. Piccard the Distinguished Public Service Award. "As President of the United States, I extend the nation's recognition and gratitude for your resourcefulness, courage and devotion to duty and your contributions to our country and to all free men," President Eisenhower's citation read. "I offer my personal congratulations."

As of today, only 22 people have visited Challenger Deep, a number that only recently exceeded the number of people who have walked on the moon.

In my article about Rolex's new Deepsea Challenge, I mentioned this year's release by Omega, the Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep, the brand's highest depth-rated watch available for sale. 


But I realize now I've picked the wrong watch for comparison. Or at least the wrong Omega. The Deepsea Challenge is Rolex's Moonwatch.