In April of 1970, Nixon was settled into his first term as President, the Vietnam War was smoldering and manned moon missions were already becoming routine to a public with a short attention span. But when the number two cryogenic tank on the Apollo 13 command module exploded, leaving three astronauts adrift with dwindling oxygen, heat, water and power, the whole country sat up and paid attention. Technology had reached a point where we could reliably put men on the moon and bring them back, but at its core, this was still dangerous business carried out by extremely brave men, a point driven home by this crisis 200,000 miles from earth.
When Apollo 13’s Command Module pilot Jack Swigert used his Omega Speedmaster chronograph to time the critical 14-second engine burn that would align the spacecraft for safe re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, it not only saved the lives of the crew but launched a wristwatch into horological immortality. 2015 marks the 45th anniversary of that fateful mission and Omega commemorated it with a gala in Houston, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Mission Control. Omega ambassador (and self-proclaimed space nut) George Clooney was in attendance, but the real celebrities were the Apollo astronauts who were there: last man on the moon Gene Cernan, Apollo 10 commander Thomas Stafford, and Apollo 13 commander James Lovell. They’re old men now, stooped and a bit hard of hearing, but they could probably still fire up the mothballed Saturn V rocket parked in the hangar — and they’d probably do it in a heartbeat.
An Apple Watch has more memory than the computers used to navigate the Apollo missions and will tell time more accurately than a hand-wound chronograph. If you have enough money, you can go into space as a tourist. With no Space Race to win, NASA’s role in the national agenda is an ongoing question. While our answer changes year to year along with its budget, NASA has continued to make itself an asset with biomedical innovations and a slew of other advancements. Those stories about 45-year-old failed moon missions seem like ancient history. But bravery and adventure are timeless; someday soon, Americans both young and old will look to Mars with the same wonder that the moon inspired on July 21, 1969. It will take a new generation of astronauts and rocket scientists for mankind to set foot there — and maybe even a new chronograph.
After the Speedmaster Professional helped save the Apollo 13 crew, NASA awarded Omega its coveted “Silver Snoopy Award”, the highest honor that could be bestowed on a civilian organization for efforts contributing to the space program. For the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission and the award, Omega built a limited-edition Speedmaster Professional, released at BaselWorld and already sold out. The watch has a white dial with the Peanuts character uttering the well-known phrase, “Failure is not an option.” Around the first quarter arc of the seconds track is written “What Could You Do in 14 Seconds”, in reference to the critical 14-second engine burn that aligned the Apollo 13 craft for re-entry. Of course, inside ticks the same hand-wound calibre that was in Jack Swigert’s watch on April 15, 1970.