Celebrating 20 Years of the MISSION M250 : Origins Rooted in Outer Space

An astronaut’s bespoke request for an American-made timepiece led to the official launch of the TWC brand in 1998. The Mission Collection tracks the evolution of Towson's chronograph series and America’s official space watch.

Mission STS-99 Chronograph on Commander Thiele's wrist in spacecraft.

The STS-99 was the first space mission of the new millennium. The Endeavour shuttle spent months mapping the earth’s surface from the south of Greenland to the northern edge of the Antarctic. Despite the digital instruments aboard the spacecraft, the astronauts wanted an accurate and reliable mechanical timepiece. The watches that TWC built for the mission were certified chronometers, serving as faithful companions to the astronauts in outer space. This made Towson’s Mission STS-99 Chronograph the first mechanical watch of the 2000’s worn in outer space, and even the last worn on a solo NASA spacecraft mission.

TWC onboard Endeavour Space Shuttle

It was Commander Thiele who saw the potential in what an American firm could offer in regard to making bespoke watches with purpose. He specifically wanted a tool watch with distinct professionalism that would accompany him on his journey through outer space. The guidelines called for a combination of “Swiss accuracy and German craftsmanship.” Hartwig Balke and George Thomas were two of the only watchmakers in America at the time capable of producing such quality with chronometer-grade accuracy.

The request wasn’t born out of patriotism, it was vested in a true desire to work with the watchmaker and play a role in the making process. This was something that Commander Thiele believed an American firm could uniquely provide him with - an instrument made just for him and his mission. Commander Thiele recognized our founder’s ability to make a personal yet regulated instrument, selecting them as the makers of his space watch. Establishing a foundation for a new era of horological achievements in America that would continue to this day.

TWC in-house modification prior to COSC certification.

At the time of the commander’s request, the TWC collections hadn’t yet come to fruition, but the two watchmakers were becoming known for their personalized approach to the craft. They catered to bespoke requests from local clientele, working almost exclusively with precious materials and grand-complications. Taking the finest components from around the world and translating them into one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Today, the Master’s Collection tells the story of these origins. The collection hosts watches born purely out of the desire of Towson’s watchmakers to make them. Frosted silver dials, skeletonized movements, and hand-guilloche that illuminate the most intrinsic values of our appreciation for high-horology. 

As more people began to recognize the unique work our founding watchmakers were engaging in, notable enthusiasts and professionals alike found a larger merit to what was happening - mechanical watchmaking here in the United States, pushing innovation forward and breaking status-quo in its respective arena. It was a scene of craft artisans quietly turning their expertise into bespoke watches for local clientele. The commander had a raw desire for a custom-tailored horological experience. It was intriguing that independent firms could make the watches they want to make, choose how to make them, and avoid the limitations of mass-branding.

Each astronaut’s crew name and the mission designator, “SRTM-99” was engraved onto the border of the caseback. Like the front, the revealed movement was protected by acrylic crystal. 

Hartwig always said, “a fine watch is a man’s signature.” This certainly struck a chord with Commander Thiele who recognized both the utility and meaning of a timepiece built just for him and his needs. It wasn’t a need for an American watch, it was a need for his own watch. Time and accuracy were at the core of the commander’s request, but there was a symbolic value of a fine timepiece that was vested in an intrinsic need for distinction and purpose. The watch told the story of the professional. If it wasn’t designed precisely in accordance with the commander’s wishes, then the commissioned project would have been obsolete. There was no room for telling the story of the brand. Thankfully, our founders had no desire to in any case. The Mission Chronograph, along with all Towson watches, are made for its wearer’s mission.

In the 1980’s, the mechanical wristwatch began to experience a renaissance. Consumers once again appreciated the art, craftsmanship and high style of mechanical wristwatches. They began to turn away from the mass-produced quartz timekeepers and look towards the Swiss luxury brands. Nonetheless, by the time the new millennium approached, luxury mechanical watches were scaled in a similar fashion as the once disruptive quartz industry had been. With the typical “space watches” at the time so highly-marketed and in the hands of the mainstream, Commander Thiele wanted a timepiece that would demonstrate his distinction and purpose while serving as a reliable instrument in space. He believed an independent firm in America could make this happen due to the standardization and formalities of the firms across the pond.

TWC Mission STS-99 in Hodinkee's Official Space Watch Database

Hartwig, a German native and career automobile engineer was responsible for the timepieces' durability and craftsmanship while George Thomas would guarantee Swiss accuracy, having restored some of the world’s most famous chronometers in the 1990’s. The specialized approach between our two founders leaks down into every aspect of a TWC watch. It has established a strict practice of using the best artisans in their respective field to make raw components found in a watch. This utilitarian and specialized approach even leaked into the design language of their first chronograph built for Commander Thiele, the Mission STS-99, and the array of M250 chronograph series that would follow.

In total, eight STS-99 Chronometers were made in this first series of TWC watches, with two currently on display at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, serving as tokens of American innovation in watchmaking. The founder’s successful fulfillment of Commander Thiele’s direct request solidified the TWC brand. Watchmakers with a standardized and personalized approach to the craft, offering themselves directly to the customer. A brand built on making these watches available to all collectors, enthusiasts and professionals. Watches that tell the story of its wearer.

Commander Thiele on NASA STS-99 Endeavour Spacecraft with Towson Mission M250 on the wrist in space.

The array of series that would follow aimed to make this personalized approach to the craft of watchmaking available to all collectors, enthusiasts and professionals. The Mission M250 would be the first standardized TWC Collection reference model to become commercially available for purchase in select retailers around the East Coast. With the Mission Moon, our watchmakers evolved the Mission M250 with utilitarian and aesthetic intentions, designing a triple calendar moonphase chronograph made for enthusiasts seeking maximum utility and professionalism from a mechanical tool watch. 

2000: STS-99 Mission Chronograph

After the first eight chronographs were made for the STS-99 space mission, two of which now lie on display at the NWAC museum, Hartwig and George celebrated their achievement with a limited series of 25 commemorative “replica” timepieces. The silver or black dials shared the exact same specifications as the official chronographs made for the astronauts. They featured the TWC initials and chronometer rating at the 6 o’clock sub-dial. The screwed-down caseback featured no model reference number. Like the timepieces made initially, the 25 units that were made-to-order directly from TWC featured custom Benzinger rotors, skeletonized and filled with gold. COSC certification was included with these timepieces.

2005: The TWC Chronograph

Due to the success of the first 25 chronographs, the founders paired up with a variety of local retailers to launch their first TWC collection. They would follow the same design language as the former limited collection, but sign the caseback and modify the guilloche-style as well as the case finishes to obtain a more premium look. This time, the TWC-initial dial in silver or black didn’t feature the chronometer rating. Due to the standardization reached in-house and the benefits of holding onto movements for longer for increased refinement, Towson Watch Company deemed the long COSC certification process unnecessary. The 100 total timepieces featured no reference model engraving on the back, but were engraved with the brand, region of manufacturer “USA” and serial number. They were sold at upscale retailers between 2005 and 2007.

2010: Mission M250

As the brand grew with the release of other collections featuring the TWC shield logo, the STS-99 Mission Chronograph became the basis for Towson’s signature chronograph collection going forward. Again, the same design language would be respected, but this time the dial would incorporate Towson’s shield. The M250 featured a 40mm steel case with a mirror-finish bezel and satin-finish sides. Roman numerals and painted scales were replaced with more formal and contemporary elements. The guilloche-style dial now contained rhodium hour-markers and spade-shaped hands. It was available in silver or black exclusively at our authorized retailers or the TWC website. Limited to 100 timepieces, each having an engraved exhibition caseback with the M250 reference number, serial number, ROF, brand signature and depth rating. Customized with silver or black tachymeter, rhodium-plated or rose gold-plated hands, and a leather strap.

2015: Mission Moon MM250

The Towson watchmakers had officially mastered the caliber 7750 chronograph and it was time to move to the next level and incorporate the 7751 into the Mission Collection. Once again, the same design language would follow in the first collection of 100 MM250 Mission Moon timepieces. Guilloche-style dial, plated spade-shaped hands and a high-polish 40mm case with free-standing chronograph pushers. Now featuring an outer date-calendar operated by a central moon-tipped hand. Three windows measuring the moonphase, month and the day could be reset using the external pusher on the left side of the case and the quickset crown. The MM250 adopted a new color with the copper/salmon variant, 25 of which were made into the individually-numbered Mission Moon cases.

2020: Mission M250-2

In 2020, the M250 was reintroduced with the new model reference M250-2. The signature chronograph now features a 42mm steel case with crown guards and a satin-finished mid-section & bezel with polished lugs. The most significant changes from the previous edition are found throughout the case and its general shape, with subtle modifications made to the dial’s detailing and display. The sapphire crystal exhibition caseback is engraved with the series two M250-2 reference number, serial number (No.001-100), Towson MD, USA and the 5 ATM depth rating. Available in a silver or black dial with silver or black tachymeter and rhodium-plated or rose gold-plated hands.

2022: Mission Moon MM250-2

The latest adoption to the collection has been the Series Two Mission Moon MM250-2. Like its sister M250, not many changes outside of the case and general shape were made here. The TWC shield is no longer hand-painted and the engine-turning on the sub-dials is a bit more intricate, but the case and finishing is the main differentiating attraction here. It shares the same structural adjustments as the M250-2, now encapsulated in a 42mm brushed case with crown-guards and anti-reflex sapphire crystal. Like the former series, a day-corrector on the left side of the case eases operation of the 7751 movement, which is now more clearly seen through the skeleton rotor. Limited to 100 individually-numbered MM250-2 timepieces, available in a silver or black dial. Custom options include black or silver tachymeter, rhodium-plated or rose gold-plated spade-shaped hands, and leather strap.

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