Omega Speedmaster Professional, the Watch That Saved Apollo 13

How this legendary Omega chronograph helped bring three astronauts home from space
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Jul 2, 2015 | By Joseph Meehan

n the evening hours of April 13, 1970, two days after launch, the Apollo 13 lunar exploration mission was proceeding smoothly. Astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise were busy attending their normal duties.

Everything was going according to plan until they heard a loud bang from outside and felt the craft shake around them. Swigert radioed ground control: “Houston, we've had a problem.” 

Swiss luxury watchmaker Omega defines a chronograph as a “complicated watch with a function for measuring short time periods in addition to its function for permanently displaying hours, minutes and seconds.” As official timekeeper for the Olympic Games, Omega wanted to develop a chronograph that could be used in sports and racing.

The Omega Speedmaster was born. 

The Speedmaster went through a series of tweaks in its early life which led to the Speedmaster Professional that would be used in space exploration. The straight lugs and triple-register were present from the start, but the baton hands, black aluminum bezel and wider case were all later additions.

In 1968, two years before the Speedmaster would be instrumental in bringing the Apollo 13 crew home safely, the original calibre 321 would be changed for the newer, magnetic-resistant calibre 861. The new and improved movement would prove crucial in passing rigorous testing by NASA. After passing the tests, the Omega Speedmaster became one of very few pieces of astronaut equipment not manufactured by NASA specifically for use in space.

Shortly after the loud bang the problem was clear. Due to an electrical short and resultant arcing, one of the craft's oxygen tanks had burst, venting it's stores into the void and damaging one of the other tanks. Ground control immediately advised the crew to power down all nonessential systems. Oxygen and fuel cell power became of the utmost importance at this point – to use any more than necessary of any of the crew's consumables could result in total mission failure. After developing and analyzing many options for bringing the astronauts home safely, ground control decided the astronauts would use the modest supplies in the lunar module to survive and bring the craft back to Earth.

The spacecraft needed to be aligned to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at the correct angle. Due to the high power requirements and unsure state of the command module, the lunar module descent engine was decided upon to make the course corrections. The descent engine had no automatic guidance or options for optical guidance; the astronauts were required to make a mid-flight adjustment to their trajectory and they had to manually time it with great precision. 

The astronauts used their Omega Speedmaster watches to time the trajectory adjustments. Careful timing of the mid-flight adjustments was crucial – not long enough and they would get the trajectory wrong, too long and they would use up the descent engine and be lost afloat in space. Three corrections were made in total, each one timed precisely by the Omega Speedmaster. The spacecraft entered the Earth's atmosphere with plenty of consumables left on board and in a trajectory that would land them right near the recovery crews already stationed in the Pacific Ocean. 

For contributions to the success of the mission Omega was awarded the Silver Snoopy award. One of the great honors NASA can bestow on employees and contractors, the Silver Snoopy is a prestigious American award. Omega has recently released a commemorative edition of the Speedmaster Professional with a signature Snoopy figure on one of the sub-dials. 

The Speedmaster legacy endures today. An updated model of the Speedmaster Professional is still in production as well as other models under the Speedmaster moniker. Because of the Speedmaster's history in space and the company's dedication to quality, Omega's chronographs are an American icon that will be worn for generations to come. [H]

Joseph Meehan is a writer, reader, hiker, gardener and amateur chef who lives in Oakland, CA.
He thinks there can never, in any circumstance, ever, ever ever be too much fudge.
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Images ©: 1, 2, 4, 6. aBlogtoWatch; 7. Omega; 8. NASA