The official status of Omega’s Speedmaster Professional as that of “Moonwatch” is widely known and celebrated amongst enthusiasts and certainly by Omega themselves. Unlike many brand partnerships, the relationship between Omega and NASA has yielded real, tangible benefits, with the Speedmaster itself making appearances in each of the manned missions to the Moon, and even contributing to one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century, helping the astronauts of Apollo 13 return safely to Earth after an oxygen tank explosion two days into the mission. To gain a more personal perspective on this relationship, Omega sent us to NASA headquarters in Houston, where we had access to astronauts Jim Lovell (Gemini 7, 12; Apollo 8, 13) and Tom Stafford (Gemini 6A, 9A; Apollo 10; ASTP). We heard the first hand account of Lovell’s heroism, and the Speedmaster’s pivotal role in Apollo 13’s return to Earth.
“Houston, we have a problem.” It’s a line we all recognize, even if only out of the mouth of Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13. The famous words were actually spoken by Astronaut Jim Lovell on April 14th, 1970, more than three quarters of the way to the Moon, where he and crewmates Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were scheduled to explore the Fra Mauro highlands. Interesting fact: Jim Lovell actually said “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” The oxygen tank explosion meant skipping the lunar landing – instead they looped around the Moon in order to limp back to Earth in power reserve mode. To keep the Lunar Module life-support and communication systems operational until re-entry, the module was powered down to the lowest levels possible. This placed a premium on any mechanical devices that might aid their return, such as their Speedmaster watches.
As of March 1965 the Omega Speedmaster has been “flight qualified by NASA for all manned space missions.” The watch has been present on all six of the manned missions to the Moon, making its first appearance on the lunar surface as part of the Apollo 11 mission. While speculation about Swigert’s Rolex GMT Master remains just that, there seems to be little doubt that it was a Speedmaster that played a role in the Apollo 13 mission. Never mind the fact that NASA specified that a chronograph would be needed, we now have it from Jim Lovell himself – that it was the Omega that played a role in timing critical maneuvers on the return trip.
In preserving life support and communication systems, the Lunar Module was nearly completely powered down. However, two midcourse corrections were required on the way back to Earth to ensure proper trajectory. On the last controlled burn, the crew needed to manually sight the capsule’s trajectory through the duration of a 14-second burn. Lovell used a “gunsight” and aligned the crosshairs with the day/night shadow, or “terminator” line on the Earth.
“Well, that was the last burn… What we had to do was get back in the proper quarter to come back in and make a safe landing because we were still a little bit off. The Command Module of course, was completely dead. We used the Lunar Module as the life boat, it was the landing engine of the Lunar Module we used to make the corrections. So what we had to use was the Omega watch to time the 14 second burn of the Lunar Module engine, to get back into the proper quarter to get back in to make a proper landing.”
– JIM LOVELL
Without that last controlled burn the LM could have bounced off of the Earth’s atmosphere and continued into space along with its occupants. For its part in getting the astronauts home, the Speedmaster was awarded the Silver Snoopy Award, an honor awarded to NASA employees and contractors for outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success. Omega has commemorated the award with special edition watches just twice, the second of which was shown for the first time in Basel earlier this year.
During our time in Houston, we were also treated to a tour of NASA’s facilities, including the mission control room that flight director Gene Kranz and the support crew called home during the Apollo 13 mission. We saw new Lunar rover designs, Astronauts in training, and even the Orion capsule set to take humans to Mars for the first time. At the base of the mission control tower resides a case full of Speedmaster watches, each with a different mission patch from 22 missions. In 1997, a case containing all 22 (plus a 1957 lookalike) was made available for purchase to celebrate the watch’s 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, only 50 were made. They rarely hit the open market, and when they do they command well into six figures.
A dinner with the astronauts, including Gene Cernan (Gemini 9A; Apollo 10, 17), and a brief appearance by George Clooney wrapped up our visit. The takeaway? The Speedmaster has a legit place in the history of America’s space program. More info on the modern Speedmaster can be found at Omega’s website, and you can learn more about the Apollo 13 mission right here.