Making History in 14 Seconds: Omega’s Essential Precision during the Apollo 13 Mission
When Apollo 13’s mission came about on April 11, 1970, Omega had already been an invaluable support to NASA, with the Speedmaster’s pledge in “flight qualified for all manned space missions”. While it was the first watch worn on the moon in 1969 during Apollo 11’s first moon landing, it wasn’t until the Apollo 13 mission in 1970 that Omega’s critical precision was best represented.
Commanded by veteran astronaut James Lovell, with Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot, Fred Haise; Apollo 13 was destined for the moon: the third human lunar landing to inspect, survey and sample selenological materials in the preselected Fra Mauro Formation (a formation of highlands on the near side of the moon) — the next successful chapter of the Apollo project.
“The watch was a critical backup,” said James Ragan, the NASA engineer who first tested and qualified the Omega Speedmaster in 1964; as the three astronauts were each equipped with Omega Speedmaster Professional chronographs — part of NASA’s official kit for all manned missions since 1965. “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.”
Unfortunately, a major problem did occur for Apollo 13 just two days after launch, when an oxygen tank exploded on board, and crippled the Service Module, plunging the astronauts into a truly perilous situation.
CLOCKWISE, FROM LEFT: Apollo 13 took off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970; Commander of Apollo 13 James Lovell suiting up; on April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 achieved a splashdown in the South Pacific Ocean, where USS Iwo Jima was on standby for recovery. All archive images: Courtesy of NASA
The infamous “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” was transmitted back to Earth, and the mission to the moon was promptly abandoned. As part of the innovative rescue strategy directives from Houston, the astronauts were forced into the Lunar Module, where they had to shut down nearly all power to conserve energy, rendering their digital timers obsolete, and leaving them at the mercy of dark and freezing conditions.
Apollo 13 faced many serious challenges over the next several days, as NASA worked around the clock to overcome the increasingly volatile situation. By then, the aborted mission had drifted off course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles; this meant that the module would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle, and bounce back into space with no chance of recovery.
During a time when there was simply no room for error, Omega’s essential precision was called for. Without their digital timers, Swigert instead used his OMEGA Speedmaster chronograph to time the required burn of the engine for an exact 14 seconds, while Lovell guided the craft manually, using the Earth’s horizon as his guide.
Much to everyone’s relief, the maneuver back to Earth was carried out perfectly, and on April 17, Apollo 13 achieved a splashdown in the South Pacific Ocean, Southeast of American Samoa and 6.5km from the recovery ship USS Iwo Jima; 142 hours and 54 minutes after launch.
What started off as a mere backup, the watch came to play its crucial part in precise timekeeping, and performed exactly as intended. Mission Commander James Lovell later said: “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.”
Later that year, on October 5, 1970, Omega received NASA’s illustrious “Silver Snoopy Award” — a 925 sterling silver pin that has become one of the highest honors for those in the aerospace industry, with no more than 1% of eligible recipients; as a mark of gratitude for its contributions to the success of human space flight missions, and the major role it played in the “successful failure” of Apollo 13.