50 years ago: The story of Apollo 13 and the Omega SpeedmasterFergus Nash
Anyone who has encountered the Omega brand is no doubt familiar with the Moonwatch and possibly the most compelling and historically significant story behind a watch of all time. Strapped to the wrist of Buzz Aldrin, the Omega Speedmaster became the first watch to be worn on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. But the Moonwatch story doesn’t end there. Fifty years ago this week, on April 11th, 1970, another three-man crew launched into the sky with the Omega Speedmaster reprising its NASA-approved role for Apollo 13. Yet things didn’t exactly go to plan.
Before reaching the moon, a routine stirring of an oxygen tank in the Service Module caused an accidental explosion, venting all of the oxygen and crippling the life-support systems of that module. In order to survive, the astronauts had to use the Lunar Module as a lifeboat and conserve as many resources as possible while they and NASA figured out how they could get home safely. Without intervention, the fate of Apollo 13 would be doomed to drift out into the great unknown forever.
As the Apollo 13 vessel had been blown off-course by the explosion, corrections had to be made. While the astronauts and Mission Control worked tirelessly to improvise life-preserving measures such as dealing with excess carbon dioxide and conserving drinkable water, they also had to re-program several systems so that they could be used in alternate ways.
Using thrusters that were originally supposed to land the Lunar Module on the moon’s surface, it was calculated that burning fuel for 14 seconds would be able to put the crew on a course that would swing them around the moon’s orbit and catapult them back to Earth. Without use of the now-malfunctioning digital equipment, Command Module pilot Jack Swigert relied upon his Omega Speedmaster chronograph to time the fuel burn.
In reality, the story is a lot messier. The ordeal lasted for over four days, and the astronauts had to deal with horribly wet and cold conditions as low as three degrees Celsius. While the 14-second burn gets a lot of the glory, there were actually several burns that helped correct the course of the flight as they went along, one lasting as long as 4 minutes and 24 seconds. Whether or not the Speedmaster was used for those adjustments too is almost irrelevant, because just like NASA itself, the successful return of the Apollo 13 mission was due to a huge range of factors and people.
This vast collective effort was why, two years earlier in 1968, NASA had introduced the Silver Snoopy Award as a way of marking out individuals and organisations who had contributed something exceptional to the space race. It was recognition of the fact that – while astronauts are the public rockstars of any space program – many forget that there are thousands of other employees involved behind the scenes. Awards like the Silver Snoopy helped promote the rise-and-smile attitude that those employees needed to make those missions work.
Of the roughly 15,000 recipients of the award since 1968, Omega is the only watch company to have garnered that honour. The Omega Speedmaster Anniversary Edition “Silver Snoopy Award” is a celebration of how even a simple chronograph can be pivotal in both everyday life and life-altering moments. If owning a Moonwatch makes you feel like you’re a part of that journey, well, that’s because you actually are.