Although watches have been used to help us humans accomplish great things in many different situations for a very long time, there doesn’t seem to be a better example of the usefulness of a proper tool watch than that of the Omega Speedmaster Professional and the crew of the Apollo 13 mission. When I read about what happened and watched the movie featuring Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon, I can’t help but to marvel at the idea that a mechanical watch actually saved the crew—although I wish they would have never found themselves in such a situation in the first place. I wonder if one day my favorite mechanical watch could do the same for me. Although that’s very unlikely, today we’re going to take a look at the connection between Omega and the Speedmaster and what happened to the crew of Apollo 13.
When the Speedmaster Became the NASA Watch
When NASA started the Apollo program in 1963, it wasn’t long before it would be in search of a watch that would accompany the astronauts to land on the moon and on all Apollo missions. NASA sent out requests to ten watch manufacturers and only four responded: Omega, Rolex, Longines-Wittnauer, and Hamilton. The model Hamilton sent was immediately disqualified because it was a pocket watch (NASA required a wristwatch,) and of the three remaining samples, only the Speedmaster withstood all tests NASA put the watches through. From being exposed to extreme temperatures, changes in atmospheric pressure, acceleration and deceleration tests, as well as shock resistance tests, the Speedmaster was the only one that survived.
The model in question was the Speedmaster reference 105.003, and after further developments, the actual reference that was used for the Apollo missions was the 105.012, the first professional Speedmaster. The key difference between the two references, it seems, was the addition of crown guards. Both references used the caliber 321 which beats at 2.5 Hz and comes with 55 hours of power reserve. (Omega recreated the movement for a heritage Speedmaster made in reference to the NASA Speedmaster Professional.) The 105.012 was therefore the model used by the crew of Apollo 13 and the one which saved their lives.
How Did the Speedmaster Professional Save the Crew of Apollo 13?
The Apollo 13 mission launched on April 11th, 1970. It was the seventh manned mission and the third one meant to land on the surface of the moon. On April 13th, an oxygen tank in the service module initiated and exploded, venting both oxygen tanks into space. Oxygen was necessary for the crew to operate the service module and they were forced to shut it down to save precious resources. The three crew members had to also shut down the control module (which operated the entire spacecraft) and to transfer to the lunar module which was meant to land on the moon. The crew and Houston had to find ways to adapt the lunar module to serve as a lifeboat so that the crew could safely land back on earth.
Because of the time it took for the crew and Houston to make that switch (I’m keeping things simple here,) the lunar module drifted off its course by 60 to 80 nautical miles. Without an adjustment of its trajectory, the lunar module would reenter the atmosphere at the wrong angle and burn into flames. With the help of Houston and the crew’s extreme preparedness and skills, they calculated that they had to initiate a 14-second burn of the rockets in order to correct their course. Not 13 seconds, not 15 seconds. They had to operate the lunar module manually. This is when the Omega Speedmaster came into play: one of the crew members used his trusty 105.012 to calculate the exact burn time.
From what I understand, the crew didn’t trust the onboard instruments of the lunar module to accurately time the burn of the rocket. (Why they didn’t remains a mystery to me.) Regardless, the Omega Speedmaster Professional was there and operated well, and that’s what I find to be fascinating about this story. If NASA didn’t select the Omega for the Apollo missions—although I assume they would have eventually found an alternative—the crew of the Apollo 13 wouldn’t have made it. And, perhaps, another watch wouldn’t have survived actually being in space and could have failed, leaving the crew to the same fate. It’s just incredible that a watch basically saved human lives. I don’t know of an equally dramatic use case of a professional tool watch and I hope not to hear about one.Featured image: www.revolutionwatch.com