A Saudi Astronaut’s Rolex GMT at the International Space Station

A Saudi Astronaut’s Rolex GMT at the International Space Station

Saudi astronaut Ali Alqarni peered out the window of the International Space Station (ISS). The bright blue glow of the earth’s atmosphere roughly 250 miles below him filled his vista.  He slid his Rolex “Pepsi” GMT-Master II off his wrist and let it go, the watch drifting, weightless, right in front of the window. In a rare moment of serenity, Alqarni snapped a picture of the watch. 

When I first came across the picture on @niccoloy’s Instagram page, I ignorantly assumed “Prince Ali '' was a wealthy Saudi, on a “mission” to the ISS.  As it turns out, Captain Alqarni was not a billionaire space tourist, but instead a professional aviator–a Captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force having logged over 2,000 hours of flight time and multiple combat deployments on the F-15.  While the Rolex GMT-Master II looked like any old Rolex, it was so much more– it was a symbol of Alqarni’s achievements, a commemorative watch purchased after his wedding and a complement to the Breitling B-1 he had worn since graduating flight school. It also pulled double duty as a true tool in the cockpit, the most fitting application of the watch considering its jet-age history. 

Axiom Mission 2 SpaceX

We spoke with Alqarni, a follower of W.O.E., and found in him a passion for service to his country, and a sense of conviction that watches are meant as tools as well as extensions of our identity and symbols of our accomplishments.

Like many space voyages before Axiom Mission 2, Alqarni’s trip was just as much cultural and political as it was scientific.  The Saudi Space Commission launched in 2017 as a part of Vision 2030, and Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi were the second and third, respectively, Saudis to reach space under the Saudi Space Commission. Barnawi, the first Saudi woman in space, is a stem cell researcher with a complementary skill set to Alqarni’s.  Barnawi wore a yellow “Mission to the Sun” Moonswatch on the ISS.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) hoped the mission would inspire the next generation of Saudi Arabian citizens to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).   

Axiom Mission 2 Omega Speedmaster
Alqarni’s commemorative Omega Speedmaster, also worn on the trip.

Watches of Spaceflight (W.O.S.)?

When it comes to “Watches of Astronauts” (W.O.A.?), we immediately think of the Omega Speedmaster, a watch with strong ties to space exploration and that most notably played an important role during Apollo 13.  But a plethora of other brands have exited earth's atmosphere, including a previous Rolex GMT worn on the wrist Dr. Edgar Mitchell during the Apollo missions. The Rolex GMT-Master was a logical watch given the robust movement and GMT function, and legendary US Air Force officer Chuck Yeager’s watch of choice is still prized by aviators to this day.  

As with Intelligence and Special Operations, watches have a strong historical tie to space exploration, initially due to the functional aspect of a watch, but at present, their cultural significance is equally as strong.  That said, Alqarni noted that most modern astronauts relied on Digital Tool Watches (DTWs), proving more functional than mechanical watches.

Fighter Pilot Turned Astronaut:

Though Alqarni was passionate about watches from an early age, his real exposure to military watch culture originated during his flight training in the United States in 2011.  His US Air Force officer mentor wore a Breitling F-15 Airwolf "Eagle Driver" with his call sign engraved on the caseback.  The mentor explained the significance of squadron commissioned watches and as a result, Alqarni was hooked.  From humble roots and fresh off a scholarship from King Faisal Air Academy, Alqarni wasn’t in a position to buy a brand new watch, so he settled on a pre-owned Breitling B-1 to commemorate his graduation.

Fighter Pilot Breitling B-1

As a part of the Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), Alqarni visited the  Space Center Houston and met a former F-16 pilot-turned-astronaut.  This planted the seed that eventually led Alqarni to a career as an astronaut, but with no Saudi space program at the time, future space travel seemed unlikely.  Alqarni also received his call-sign: “Prince Ali”, based on the playful assumption from US Airmen that Alqarni must be related to the Royal family, the type of culturally insensitive, but well-intentioned humor common in our community.  

Over the next decade, Alqarni wore the Breitling B-1 throughout his training and combat deployments.  For the same reasons my personal Breitling Aerospace was ideal for clandestine operations around the globe, Alqarni’s B-1 was a practical tool watch for an F-15 pilot.  The digital screens and various functions allowed him to time flights and track multiple time zones.  It was a tool, but also a symbol of his accomplishments, his passion for flying and the significance of time in the world of aeronautics.  During our conversation, he proudly explained his devotion to aviation and said the tool was a symbol of that love.  He was proud of every scratch on it.

Rolex GMT Pepsi F-15

The Rolex:

In 2018, in preparation for his wedding day Alqarni walked into an Authorized Dealer in Jeddah and put his name on the list for the Rolex GMT-Master II on a Jubilee bracelet.  It was a logical choice for a professional pilot, the Pepsi GMT has strong roots in aviation.  For confirmation that “Prince Ali” is not a real Prince, look no further than the year he had to wait for his Rolex. Like the rest of us commoners, he had to wait a year until he received “the call” two months after his wedding.  Regardless of the wait, the watch immediately became a favorite and adorned his wrist on training missions and deployments.  The Rolex catapulted him down the watch rabbit hole, and his collection only grew over the years.

Space Trip:

In 2020, the Saudi Space Commission sent out the request for volunteers to travel on Axiom Mission 2, originally scheduled for early 2023.  The six month selection process whittled 200 applicants down to Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.  It was a commercial spaceflight led by veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson.  As with previous spaceflights, the mission was a symbol of national pride and intended to signal that KSA was focused on the future.  The inclusion of a female member of the team was a clear message that KSA was focused on modernization.  Only in 2017 were women allowed to drive after a decree from King Salman.

Axiom Ali Alqarni Saudi

Alqrani’s personal effects and equipment were sent to the space station in advance, which included the Rolex GMT.  The GMT is noticeably absent from his wrist in pictures of Alqarani training for the mission.  Each spaceflight member was provided a custom Omega Speedmaster Professional.  The astronauts’ names and the team’s patch–a dragon capsule flanked with the Saudi and US flags–were engraved on the caseback.

Axiom Mission 2 Omega
A patch honoring the mission’s focus on inspiration, education and teaching, symbolized by the five S.T.E.A.M symbols. Science represented by a DNA strand, Technology represented by a set of connected circles, Engineering represented by a cog, Arts represented by a brush, and Math represented by the Pi symbol. 

The Mission:

When Alqarni arrived at the ISS, he was provided access to his personal effects and equipment needed for scientific experiments in the zero gravity environment.  Alqarni nervously unwrapped the watch that he had not seen for six months, reflecting, “I was worried that the watch was not going to work.”  It was an emotional and symbolic moment: Both the watch and Alqarni had made it against all odds. And both were right on time. For Alqarni, the watch ticking embodied all that it took to get to the ISS and the sacrifice and triumph of the Saudi people.

Quickly realizing that the jubilee bracelet was loose, a result of weight loss during training, Alqarni wound the watch and set the primary time to Zulu Time (Coordinated Universal Time), the time used by the ISS, and the secondary hand to Saudi Arabia (Zulu + 3).  Throughout the journey, Alqarni manipulated the bezel to quickly check the time for Tokyo, etc. as he traveled through space.   

Rolex GMT Space SpaceX

Zero Gravity:

Alqarni explained that the self-winding automatic watch worked well in zero gravity conditions, the wrist movement and inertia was enough to move the pendulum.  Alqarni did not have to wind the watch again.

After 10 days in space, the team splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on 30 May.  As Barnawi, the first Saudi woman to space, would say, “Every story comes to an end and this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region.”  

Peggy Whitson Axiom SpaceX

To commemorate the trip to space and build on the history of the Rolex GMT, Alqarni planned to engrave the caseback with the dates of the voyage as well as a note summarizing his accomplishments to date.  Alqarni currently has one daughter and has aspirations to grow his family. He hopes to give the watch to his children in the future. Who knows, they might even take it back to space one day. 

Read Next: The Lasting Legacy Of The CIA’s Lockheed A-12 And The Watch That Served It


Many 1960s NASA astronauts owned a Rolex GMT-master 1675 pilot watch, Ron Evans,Jim Lovell, Ed Mitchell, Stu Roosa, Al Shepard, Wally Schirra, Jack Swigert and Al Worden to name a few.
Already during the X-15 rocket aircraft hypersonic research program, a Rolex GMT-master 1675 pilot watch made it to space on the wrist of test pilot William Pete Knight (1967, October 17 on flight 190 reaching 85 kilometers). Knight had also worn his Rolex GMT-master during flight 188 (1967, October 3), which was the fastest flight of the X-15 program, reaching Mach 6.7 or 7232 Km/hour! #MoonwatchUniverse

Philip MWU

Similar to Prince Ali, I purchased a Rolex Pepsi from a Rolex AD to be my wedding watch in December 2019 after waiting about 3 months. I was supposed to get married in May 2020 but due to Covid, my wedding was delayed until May 2021. My fiancee (now wife) refused to let me wear the watch for 18 months until our wedding day, citing that it would make the watch less special if I wore it before our wedding. Not going to lie, I was kind of annoyed but ultimately glad that I waited. Coincidentally, I also have a Cartier wedding ring like the one Prince Ali is wearing in his wrist shot with his Pepsi in the F-15 cockpit. Nice to know a Pepsi has been to space!


Fascinating story and special to see someone “using their tools” in space!


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