The space race is a history replete with heroic achievement, tragic disaster, and harrowing near misses. Those astronauts who were among the early pioneers of NASA’s space exploration were truly venturing where no man had gone before—using technology that today we would consider quaint and antiquated.
But few stories in the NASA pantheon resonate as deeply as that of the Apollo 13 mission. The weight and impact of that event is due, in part, to its archetypal struggle—an illustration of man’s resilience and ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. However, a small but critical part of that struggle began long before lift-off in the watchmaking shops of Omega SA at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland.
First crafted in 1957, the Omega Speedmaster was designed as a column-wheel racing chronograph with a striking tachymetre bezel to calculate speed over distance. But the Speedmaster was destined for greater things. In 1965, NASA officially declared the watch “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions,” following a 2-year competition and exhaustive testing. Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young each wore one for the first time during the Gemini 3 mission.
In 1969, it was the 4th generation Speedmaster “Professional” that eventually accompanied Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon aboard Apollo 11. Indeed, it was Buzz Aldrin who had the watch on wrist as he touched down on the lunar surface—earning the Speedmaster its moniker as the “Moonwatch.”
On April the 11th 1970, veteran astronaut James Lovell—commander of Apollo 13—and his crew mates Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise were also wearing the Speedmaster as they streaked skyward, intent on becoming only the third human mission to that satellite.
According to James Ragan, a NASA engineer involved in the testing and qualifying of the OMEGA Speedmaster in 1964, “The watch was a critical backup. If the astronauts ever lost the capability of talking to the ground, or the capability of their digital timers, the only thing they would have to rely on would be the watches…It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.”
Only two days into the journey just such a “problem” occurred. The explosion of an oxygen tank crashed critical systems aboard the Apollo 13 Service Module, ending the crew’s lunar mission and threatening their lives.
More than 200 000 miles below, in Houston, a rescue strategy was quickly put together. The crew would need to transfer into the Lunar Module. To maintain vital life support systems and conserve energy, all non-essential power was cut. Dark and cold and drifting, the crew waited several days for a solution from Earth.
When it finally came, the Omega Speedmaster would be a linchpin in the plan.
Now, more than 80 nautical miles off course, the crew risked reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle. Such an occurrence would have been catastrophic, causing the module to skip off into outer space and be lost forever.
To avoid this, Jack Swigert needed to perform a DPS burn for exactly 14 seconds. As the ship’s digital timers had been rendered useless, his only method for gauging the decisive burn was the chronograph function of his Omega Speedmaster.
As Swigert performed this vital act, Lovell used the Earth’s horizon to guide the craft back on course. Their performance was perfect; the timing, precise. On April 17th, 142 hours and 54 minutes after the crew took off, Apollo 13 splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean.
Later that year, NASA awarded the watchmaker with its coveted “Silver Snoopy Award”–an honour bestowed “for outstanding performance, contributing to flight safety and mission success.”
The award—named after the organization’s fictional “watchdog”—is given out annually by an astronaut to fewer than 1% of the aerospace program. To commemorate the “successful failure” of the Apollo 13 mission, Omega launched a special Silver Snoopy iteration of the Speedmaster in 2020 to mark the 50th anniversary.
About the author
Brent Robillard is a writer, educator, craftsman, and watch enthusiast. He is the author of four novels. You can follow him on Instagram.
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4 thoughts on “Other Watchy Bits: 14 Seconds, Apollo 13 and the Omega Speedmaster”
Always great to read more on the Speedmaster’s history.
It’s funny knowing that Snoopy was just a simple cartoon character to me, yet it has such a strong relation with NASA to have an award named after it. After seeing Snoopy be so prevalent in Omega models (which are amazing!!), it’s made me read up more. Awesome article!
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I love this story. I’ve read it a million times but it never gets old. The speedmaster is one of my favorite watches ever, and this story makes the watch even more of a legend than it already is
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Thanks for reading