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How the Omega Speedmaster Saved the Apollo 13 Crew

The term tool watch refers to a piece of kit you wear on your wrist, while doing things that require its technical capabilities to execute on a physical challenge. Never has the terminology been so aptly allocated than when describing the watches worn by the Apollo 13 crew.

The Apollo space program has sent twelve American astronauts to the moon in total. During the seven-manned missions to the moon, only Apollo 13 failed to make a lunar landing when an accident enroute to the Moon forced the crew to abandon the mission and return to Earth after reaching lunar orbit. The last flight, Apollo 17, occurred in December 1972.

After Apollo and a decade of concentrated national effort to meet President Kennedy's Moon challenge, the American human spaceflight program moved toward new, less ambitious goals. Those who wanted to see more exploration expected the Apollo missions to be the beginning of travel to Mars. Others questioned whether costly human spaceflight should continue at all, now that the race was won.

So who were these guys on Apollo 13?

apollo 13 crew
Crew of Apollo 13 (left to right) James A. Lovell Jr, John L. Swigert Jr and Fred W. Haise Jr

Commander James Lovell, 42, was a seasoned veteran of orbital space travel. He had three missions and 572 spaceflight hours of experience. Lovell participated in Apollo 8, the first mission to circle the moon, and flew two Gemini missions. Command module pilot Jack Swigert, 38, was a first time flyer. He had been an astronaut since 1966, and had previously been part of the support crew for Apollo 7. He was initially Apollo 13's backup command module pilot but joined the crew just 48 hours before the launch after Ken Mattingly got ill.  Rounding out the crew was lunar module pilot Fred Haise. The 36 year old was in the same astronaut class as Swigert and had previously been a backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11. The entire crew had test flight experience before they became astronauts, meaning they were used to dealing with in-flight problems. That experience would come in handy on Apollo 13.

james a lovell during eva training
James Lovell during EVA training. His Omega Speedmaster can be seen on the right arm of his space suit.

Apollo 13, as the name suggests, was the thirteenth in a series of missions using Apollo-specification flight hardware and was to be the third lunar landing. The launch vehicle and spacecraft were similar to those of Apollo 12. The Earth-orbital and translunar injection phases went as planned. The Apollo 13 spacecraft was made up of the same components as all Apollo landing missions, consisting of the two-part Command/Service Module, Odyssey and the two-part Lunar Module, Aquarius. As the result of the accident, however, none of the components were used in precisely the way they were originally intended.

apollo 13 launch
Apollo 13 launches from Kennedy Space Centre, 11 April, 1970

All had gone to plan during take off, but what James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise didn’t expect on their approach to the moon in 1970 was for an oxygen tank to explode. When it did – mission command down on terra firma simply heard the now infamous five words: “Houston, we have a problem." There was no going back. The team knew they needed to land their craft.  Now I’m no aeronautical engineer – but 205,000km ain’t close.  And that was their distance back to earth. To compound matters - the crew also suffered several other technical issues because of the explosion – and they were coming in hot.  Stuck in a minute lunar module (designed purely for moon landings) – it was bitterly cold, they were dehydrated and fatigued – but they knew they had one shot at getting home.  

Politically it was a fascinating time. The space race had been won, but the Cold War still raged on and the US could not risk losing face by losing three of its astronauts in space with the world looking on. Failure was not an option.  

mission control during apollo 13
Mission control centre in Houston as the emergency onboard Apollo 13 unfolds.

Following a brief assessment – the mission control decided that the best chance of successfully getting the crew back to Earth would involve using the gravity of the moon along with the lunar module’s Descent Propulsion System (DPS). However, they had a problem (well, a few).  The way in which the module was descending would result in it catapulting back into space. The lunar module had no automatic guidance system, so the astronauts would have to burn the engines for exactly the right amount of time to adjust their angle of attack to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle. In need of total accuracy, Swigert turned to his trusty OMEGA Speedmaster Professional to time the burn.

As the lunar module began its descent, the first burn, lasting 14 seconds, was so precise that only two slight further adjustments were necessary. A 14-second manoeuvre that proved critical in returning the crew back to earth. The module came down safely into the South Pacific on April 17th, and the crew were picked up.  

apollo 13 splash down south pacific
Apollo 13 crew being picked up in the South Pacific

You will have no doubt see the Omega Snoopy dial watches (Snoopy was an unofficial mascot for NASA) and wondered where the link was. Well, the company received the “Silver Snoopy Award” following the safe return of the crew of Apollo 13, an honour awarded to NASA employees and contractors for outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success.

The safe return of NASA’s Apollo 13 crew from 200,000 miles into space with a failing ship was a feat of human ingenuity and awesome technological prowess that Americans had grown accustomed to attributing to NASA’s space exploration program. In those days, the zest for exploration in American culture was animated by the astonishing successes that NASA was achieving with the tools of science. 

Next time you’re on the packed Northern line underground on your way to work (running late) – take a second to look at that Speedy on the wrist and have a think about how you might have reacted given 14 seconds to save your life.

john swigert omega speedmaster
John Swigert with his Omega Speedmaster during mission training