The OMEGA That Saved Apollo 13

The gripping story of the Apollo 13 mission is not just a historic moment in American space exploration. It’s also an abiding testament to man’s endurance, ingenuity, and courage.

On April 13th, 1970, astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise were preparing for a landing on the moon when disaster struck. An oxygen tank on the craft’s exterior exploded, requiring all nonessential systems to be immediately powered down. Urgent repairs had to be made, and the mission was aborted. 205,000 miles from Earth, with supplies of food and water limited and all heating lost, it was vital to get the astronauts back before time ran out. Far from home, faced with a dangerous and rapidly devolving situation, each of them could watch the seconds tick by on the OMEGA Speedmaster Professionals they wore on their wrists.

 

A Successful Launch

The OMEGA Speedmaster was introduced in 1957 as a chronograph designed specifically for sports and racing. In its early years, the watch went through numerous changes, including swapping the original Caliber 321 movement for a magnetic resistant Caliber 861.

Vintage Omega Speedmaster "Pre-moon" 145.012

A vintage OMEGA Speedmaster 145.012

In 1964, NASA began the procurement process for an official watch that its astronauts could wear in space. Several watch manufacturers were approached, but only the OMEGA Speedmaster lasted the rigorous testing process, proving capable of coping with everything NASA threw at it: changing extremes of temperature, pressure tests, shock, vibration, and acoustic noise.

Declared operational for space exploration and officially flight-certified, the OMEGA Speedmaster Professional became known as ‘the Moonwatch.’ It’s the only piece of equipment to have been used in every NASA piloted mission and one of the few not manufactured in-house by NASA itself.

Alan Bean wearing an Omega Speedmaster (Apollo 12)

Astronaut Alan Bean wearing an Omega Speedmaster during the Apollo 12 landing on the moon.

The 42mm chronograph has a distinctive black dial and tachymeter, with hands and digits coated in SuperLumiNova, and a matching bracelet or black leather strap. The Speedmaster’s precision, readability, and robustness were essential qualities for the space program and were especially vital to the three astronauts caught up in a race against time.

 

“Houston, we’ve had a problem”

Confined to a cramped lunar module designed purely for moon landings and not desperate rescue attempts, suffering from extremely low temperatures, dehydration, and exhaustion, the crew’s time was running out. Their hopes of landing on the moon now dashed, they knew they had only one shot at getting home.

After a hurried assessment of the damage caused by the oxygen tank blowout, NASA’s ground control team, led by Flight Director Gene Kranz, decided that the best chance of successfully getting the crew back to Earth would involve using the gravity of the moon along with the lunar module’s Descent Propulsion System (DPS). The problem was, at the current angle of descent, the module would ‘bounce’ straight back into space. At that point, there could be no recovery. Since the lunar module had no automatic guidance system, the astronauts would have to burn the engines for exactly the right amount of time in order to adjust their trajectory and hit the Earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle. In need of total accuracy, Swigert chose to rely on his OMEGA Speedmaster Professional to time the burn.

Jack Swigert and his OMEGA Speedmaster Watch

Jack Swigert pictured pre-launch with his OMEGA Speedmaster.

It was the right decision. As the lunar module began its descent, the first burn, lasting 14 seconds, was so precise that only two slight further adjustments were necessary.

The craft splashed down safely into the South Pacific on April 17th, and Lovell, Swigert, and Haise were rapidly picked up by the rescue team. Despite the extreme temperature and pressure of reentry, their watches continued to keep perfect time.

The Apollo 13 Crew

The Apollo 13 crew after their safe landing.

 

Failure Is Not an Option

In recognition of the company’s contribution to an extraordinary mission, OMEGA was awarded the Silver Snoopy. This sterling silver lapel pin, featuring a Spaceman Snoopy drawn by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz himself, is one of America’s most prestigious decorations. It is given in appreciation of dedication, professionalism, and outstanding support for the space program.

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To commemorate the Apollo 13 mission, in 2015 OMEGA released a new Speedmaster Silver Snoopy Award watch with a collectible white dial. Featuring an image of Snoopy, and a text bubble that echoes the words of Gene Kranz (“Failure is not an option.”), it also poses the question “What could you do in 14 seconds?” between 00:00 and 00:14 on the dial—the timespan of that first, crucial engine burn.

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With a sapphire crystal and a fabric strap, the watch is slightly heavier than the original OMEGA Snoopy Award watch from 2003, and displays the iconic Silver Snoopy image on the back of the case.

 

Space is man’s final frontier. Through its legendary partnership with NASA, and the quality and precision of its watches, OMEGA will continue to lead the charge.

 


Images ©: Header, 5-6; Crown & Caliber. 1-4; NASA/Wikimedia Commons. 

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