s the Apollo 13 rocket lifted off on 11 April 1970, no one on board or on the ground could have anticipated the drama and near disaster that lay ahead. Led by veteran astronaut James Lovell, the mission was en route to the moon, poised for the third-ever human lunar landing and the next triumphant chapter in the Apollo programme. All three astronauts, including Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, were equipped with Omega Speedmaster Professional chronographs – part of NASA’s official gear for all manned missions since 1965.
- The astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were all equipped with Omega Speedmaster Professional chronographs.
The timepieces were issued as mission-critical equipment. James Ragan, the NASA engineer who initially tested and qualified the Omega Speedmaster in 1964, explained: “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 on their wrists. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.”
- Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr., commander of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission. ©NASA
And, indeed, a major problem did arise, just two days after launch. When an oxygen tank exploded on board, it crippled the Service Module and plunged the astronauts into a truly perilous situation. The mission to the moon was abandoned. Now, it was simply about getting the crew home safely.
As part of the ingenious rescue strategy orchestrated from Houston, the astronauts were instructed to move into the Lunar Module. The craft, however, was not built to accommodate so many people for such a long time. Therefore, to conserve energy, the crew powered down nearly all the systems, rendering their digital timers inoperative and leaving the astronauts at the mercy of dark and freezing conditions.
Apollo 13 faced many serious challenges over the following days, while NASA worked around the clock to deal with the increasingly precarious situation. It was in the final stretch that Omega’s invaluable precision came into play. The mission had drifted off course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles, which meant that the module would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle, and bounce back into space with no possibility of recovery. Thus, to manually readjust the craft’s trajectory, a precise 14-second fuel burn was needed, and there was absolutely no margin for error.
Unable to use their digital timers, Swigert instead used his Omega Speedmaster chronograph to time the burn, while Lovell steered the craft using the Earth’s horizon as his reference. As Mission Commander James Lovell would later say, “We used the Omega watch that Jack had on his wrist and I had to control the spacecraft. Jack timed the burn on the engine to make that correction to get us back home safely.”
The extraordinary manoeuvre was executed flawlessly, and to the immense relief of everyone following the events from Earth. On 17 April, 142 hours and 54 minutes after launch, Apollo 13 splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean. The watch had fulfilled its purpose and performed precisely as intended.
- Apollo 13 crew recovery after splashdown. ©NASA
Later that year, on 5 October 1970, Omega was honoured with NASA’s “Silver Snoopy Award” as a token of gratitude for its contributions to the success of human spaceflight missions. When this prestigious award was first created, Snoopy was chosen as NASA’s unofficial mascot because of his ability to lighten the mood in serious situations. He also symbolised mission success and acted as a “watchdog.”
To this day, the sterling silver lapel pin is a cherished memento of Omega’s history in space exploration and, in particular, the crucial role it played in the “successful failure” of Apollo 13.