|From left: Astronaut Gene Cernan, George Clooney, Omega President and CEO Stephen Urquhart, Apollo 13 Flight Commander James Lovell and astronaut Thomas Stafford.|
You might be asking yourself what does a watch brand have to do with Apollo 13? And is there actually a NASA award name after the Peanuts comic strip character, Snoopy?
The answer to the first question is, a lot; and the answer to the second question is, Yes.
It was only a 14-second moment but it was one of the most critical steps that turned a near-fatal mission into a human success story. Apollo 13, the aborted mission to the moon, has been popularized through the book, originally titled, “Lost Moon,” (Now called “Apollo 13”) co-written by Apollo 13 Flight Commander James A Lovell and author Jeffrey Kluger; followed by the blockbuster movie, “Apollo 13,” and by the millions of people around the world in 1970 who followed the exploits of the astronauts who successfully returned to earth in their crippled spacecraft.
However, outside of those deeply involved in watches, what isn’t widely known is the role the Omega Speedmaster chronograph played in helping to bring the astronauts home safely. The watch was used to time a 14-second maneuver that proved critical in returning the crew back to earth.
NASA and Omega celebrated the 45th anniversary of the life saving mission during a series of events in Houston on May 12 that culminated with a gala dinner attended by 300 people that featured Lovell, astronaut Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, Omega President and CEO Stephen Urquhart, and film star and Omega ambassador, George Clooney. The company also released a 45th anniversary edition of the Omega Speedmaster Professional Apollo 13 Silver Snoopy Award chronograph, which is in recognition of the Silver Snoopy Award Omega received from NASA astronauts, “for outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success.”
The Critical Maneuver
Two days into the planned moon landing, an oxygen tank exploded crippling the Service Module, which provided vital functions to the Command Module occupied by the crew. After overcoming a number of hardships never experienced before in a space mission, Mission Control in Houston told the flight crew they were off course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles. In this case it meant they would be entering the earth’s atmosphere at an angle that would have bounced the spacecraft back into space with no chance of recovery.
It should be noted that the “spacecraft” they were using to return to earth was the Lunar Module, which was designed to do nothing more than land on the moon and return to the Command/Service Module in the moon’s obit before being discarded. Although no one actually says this, it appears the Lunar Module was actually towing the CSM back to the earth’s atmosphere (which they needed in order to return through the atmosphere). The LM was designed to keep two people alive for two days, not three people alive for more than four days, so in order to reserve the limited energy they shut down nearly all power, including heat and the cabin clock.
|(Left) Apollo 13 Flight Commander James Lovell and astronaut Thomas Stafford|
At a press conference on NASA Space Center Houston, Lovell described the maneuver.
“(It) was done without our normal navigation equipment. We used the earth as a backline. We could see the earth, we could see the daytime and darkness and that line in between we call it twilight or the terminator,” he said. “We had a crosshair on the window of the lunar module so we could superimpose our crosshair on the earth’s terminator and that positioned the engine of our lunar module so we can make the correct movement to get back into the proper course to make a safe landing back on earth.”
He continued, “We had to burn the engine. Have it on only for a certain length of time: 14 seconds…. 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 back home safely.”
The Silver Snoopy Award
For Omega’s contribution to the safe return of the crew, the company received the “Silver Snoopy Award.” It is a special honor awarded to NASA employees and contractors for outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success. The award depicts Snoopy, a character from the Peanuts comic strip created by Charles M. Schulz, which was an unofficial mascot for NASA.
|The Silver Snoopy Award Omega received 45 years ago on display at the 45th Anniversary dinner in Houston. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco|
Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford, who flew on six space missions at NASA, explained at the press conference that the award was used as a motivational tool for employees and contractors. The comic strip was popular with NASA people.
“NASA asked Mr. Schultz if they could use a Snoopy to award people or groups who have made a significant contribution to the safety of a mission,” Stafford said. “He said he would be honored.”
The award itself is a simple sterling silver lapel pin flown during a NASA mission, a commendation letter and a signed, framed Silver Snoopy certificate.
Stafford said Omega deserved the award not only because of its use on Apollo 13 but because of its history with the space program.
“You baseline everything you do in space on time and in training we always used the Omega watch,” he said. “Jack Swigert timed it and Jim (Lovell turned on the main engine). It was all done with an Omega watch. Omega was a vital factor in getting them back. Because of that the omega corporation was awarded the Silver Snoopy.”
Omega and NASA, Fact Vs. Legend
There’s legend and myth mixed in with the reality of the Speedmaster’s relationship with NASA. The entire truth may never be totally revealed (despite those who claim to know the whole story) This explanation will come close.
The relationship officially started in 1965. In March of that year, it was on the wrists of Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young during their Gemini 3 mission. Three months later Edward H. White wore his Speedmaster on America's first spacewalk during the Gemini IV mission.
However, there were stories that astronauts wore their own personal Speedmasters as early as 1962. This is true according to Stafford, Omega documents and others at NASA. NASA astronauts Walter “Wally” Schirra and Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper purchased their first flight-watches: the second generation Speedmaster model with the reference CK2998. These privately-owned chronographs were to be used on the upcoming Mercury program flights. And indeed, the very first Speedmaster to fly on a space mission was Schirra's own CK2998 during the Mercury-Atlas 8 (Sigma 7) mission.
How the Speedmaster became NASA’s official watch is also filled with legend. In 1964, Deke Slayton, NASA operations director, sent a directive for an official watch for NASA pilots. A young engineer named James Ragan was tasked with testing the watch.
|The Omega celebration of the 45th Anniversary of the Apollo 13 Mission|
The rumors are that Ragan, or someone from NASA went to local jewelers to buy watches. I sat next to Ragan (now retired) at the gala dinner and asked him about the story. He put the kibosh on that quickly. NASA is a government organization that has to go through a formal process to make purchases. The truth, he said, is he directed someone at NASA to send out a request for proposal to watch companies. It was a blind directive. Companies receiving the request did not know how the timepieces were going to be used.
“We had four bids. Out of those we selected three watches because the fourth one was too big. We had a Hamilton. We had a Rolex. And we had an Omega,” Ragan said. “One watch had to pass all the tests and we had 10 different tests and none of them were easy but some of them were worse than others.”
The watches received a combination of tests to see how they performed under a variety of conditions, including extreme heat and cold, high oxygen environments, high humidity, different variations in G-force conditions, and even for high decibel environments.
“Within the first two tests, both the Rolex and Hamilton failed. Period,” he said. “So all that was left was the Omega. We followed through on all the testing. It passed all the tests. It did gain a little bit and lose a little bit in the temperature extremes. But those could be adjusted so we didn’t see that as a failure.”
I asked why the Speedmaster performed so well. His scientific reply was: “It’s a tough made watch. We beat the devil out of it.”
He said over the years he purchased 97 watches through the Gemini, Apollo, ASTP and SkyLab missions. They were used for training and on all missions, including on spacewalks and moonwalks.
At the press conference with the astronauts, Stephen Urquhart, Omega president and CEO, said the watch brand had no discussions with NASA. The company didn’t even know NASA was using their watch. He also emphasized the obvious that the Omega Speedmaster, first introduced in 1957, wasn’t designed for space travel. It was created to time race cars.
“There was never any discussion between Omega and NASA on the watch,” Urquhart said. “In fact, Omega did not know we were flying those until the picture of Ed White in 1965. That’s when we first saw it on his wrist.
The picture Urquhart is referring to is of astronaut Ed White on the first ever spacewalk in 1965, where he could be seen wearing the watch. Ragan said there was a reason for this secrecy.
“The story is true,” Ragan said. “They didn’t know because we didn’t want them to go build something special. Deke Slayton who directed this wanted an off-the-shelf watch.”
The only modification made to the watch by NASA was the addition of a large Velcro strap so it can be worn over the spacesuit.
While the Speedmaster for NASA remains a commercial watch, there have been a couple minor adjustments made over the year at NASA’s request, Ragan said.
“The first chronographs that NASA bought were model 6049 (USA designation),” Ragan said in a statement. “These were to be used for the Gemini program. I found during crew usage for training and flight that it was very easy to bend or break the chronograph function buttons on the side. The case did not provide any protection for them. I asked Omega to consider redesigning the case to provide a little recess to better protect these buttons. Omega willingly redesigned the case and this configuration became the new version of the chronograph. It has the exact same movement—just a different case. This model was designated 6126 (USA designation). The model 6049 was used throughout Gemini and I started using the model 6126 model for Apollo and beyond.
The other adjustment allowed the astronauts to more easily manipulate the chronograph buttons while wearing their spacesuit gloves.
Omega Speedmaster Apollo 13 Silver Snoopy Award Chronograph
The Speedmaster professional watch created to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the difficult journey home for the Apollo 13 crew has all the markings of the mission and the award Omega received. Snoopy appears on both the dial and the caseback of the watch, whose black and white finished is inspired by the black-and-white comics in newspapers.
The white dial contrasts the black varnished Moonwatch-style hands and the polished black ceramic bezel with its Super-LumiNova tachymeter scale. Super-LumiNova is also on the central hour, minute and chronograph seconds hands.
Two inscriptions decorate the dial. Fourteen small squares between zero and 14 seconds on the dial come together to form a long comic strip, with the words “What could you do in 14 seconds?” written underneath.
At the center of the dial is the quote: “Failure is not an option,” spoken by actor Ed Harris who played Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Kranz in the 1995 film about the historic mission, Apollo 13. A small image of a sleeping Snoopy painted on the dial with Super-LumiNova is positioned in the small seconds sub-dial at 9 o’clock.
The enameled caseback, with its 925 silver medallion, is partially crafted by hand and engraved with a depiction of Snoopy wearing a spacesuit and carrying the portable air conditioning unit that human astronauts are often pictured with when wearing their space gear. This same image of Snoopy is on the silver pin presented by astronauts to individuals or companies that have contributed to the success of the NASA missions.
The watch is powered with the caliber 1861. It is limited to 1,970 pieces.
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