Without their digital timers, the crew of Apollo 13 relied on their trusty Omega Speedmaster chronograph to time the exact 14-second burn of fuel that was required to return home safely.

Launch of Apollo 13 on 11 April 1970. (Image courtesy of NASA)

When the Apollo 13 mission lifted off on 11 April 1970, nobody on board, nor on the ground, could ever have anticipated the drama and near disaster that lay ahead. The crew, commanded by veteran astronaut James Lovell, was destined for the moon. This was to be the third ever human lunar landing, and the next successful chapter of the Apollo project. Together with Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot, Fred Haise, the three astronauts were each equipped with an Omega Speedmaster Professional chronograph – as part of NASA’s official kit for all manned missions since 1965.

Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr., commander for NASA’s Apollo 13 mission, equipped with an Omega Speedmaster Professional chronograph around his wrist. (Image courtesy of NASA)

“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 always their wrists. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.”

– James Ragan, the NASA engineer who first tested and qualified the Omega Speedmaster in 1964

Astronaut James Lovell at his position in the Lunar Module of Apollo 13. (Image courtesy of NASA)

“HOUSTON, WE’VE HAD A PROBLEM”

Indeed, a major problem did occur for Apollo 13 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.

View of the damaged Apollo 13 Service Module. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Part of the innovative rescue strategy, directed from Houston, was to move the astronauts into the Lunar Module. This craft, however, was not built to support so many people for such a long time. Therefore, to conserve energy, the crew shut down nearly all power – rendering their digital timers obsolete, and leaving the astronauts 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. But it was at the final hurdle, when Omega’s essential precision was called for. Because the mission had drifted off course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles, it meant that the module would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle, and bounce back into space with no chance of recovery.

Therefore, to manually re-adjust the course of the craft, an exact 14-second burn of fuel was required. There was simply no room for error. Without their digital timers, Swigert instead used his Omega Speedmaster chronograph to time the burn, while Lovell guided the craft using the Earth’s horizon as his guide. 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.”

– Captain James Lovell, Apollo 13 Mission Commander

To huge relief, the unique manoeuvre worked perfectly, and finally, on 17 April 1970, 142 hours and 54 minutes after launch, Apollo 13 splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean. The watch had played its part, and performed exactly as intended.

Recovery of the Apollo 13 crew after splashdown. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Later that year, on 5 October, Omega was presented with NASA’s “Silver Snoopy Award” – as a mark of gratitude for its contributions to the success of human space flight missions. When this prestigious award was first created, Snoopy was chosen as NASA’s unofficial mascot because of his ability to keep things light in serious situations. He also emphasized mission success and acted as a “watchdog.”

Still today, the sterling silver lapel pin is a prized reminder of Omega’s history in space exploration, and especially the major role it played in the “successful failure” of Apollo 13.

Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional Co‑Axial Master Chronometer Chronograph 42mm

THE APOLLO 13 STORY IN 14 SECONDS

To mark the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, Omega has brought together 11 of its ambassadors including George Clooney, Kaia Gerber, Charlie Duke, Cindy Crawford, Chase Stokes, Naomie Harris, Antoni Porowski, Nicole Stott, Glen Powell, So Hee Han and Nicole Kidman, and given each of them exactly 14 seconds to sum up the Speedmaster’s role in the safe return of Apollo 13:

For a fuller version of the story of how Omega played its own critical part in bringing the astronauts home, watch the video below:

written by.

KC Yap

Editor, Augustman Malaysia
   
The Critical Moment When Omega Helped Save The Crew Of Apollo 13
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