The 14 Critical Seconds That Nearly Ended Apollo 13

When the Apollo 13 mission lifted off on April 11th, 1970, nobody on board – nor on the ground – could have ever anticipated the near-disaster that lay ahead. The crew, commanded by veteran astronaut James Lovell, were destined for the moon. This was to be the third-ever human lunar landing and the next successful chapter of the Apollo project. Together with Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, the three astronauts were each equipped with Apollo 13 OMEGA Speedmaster Professional chronographs – part of NASA’s official kit for all manned missions since 1965. 

Jim Lovell and his Apollo 13 OMEGA Speedmaster
Jim Lovell and his OMEGA Speedmaster
Courtesy of NASA

As per standard procedure during the space race, the timepieces had been issued to astronauts as a vital piece of mission equipment. As described by James Ragan, the NASA engineer who first tested and qualified the OMEGA Speedmaster in 1964, the watches were a critical backup.

“If the astronauts ever lost the capability of talking to the ground, or the capability of their digital timers, the only thing they would have to rely on would be the watches on their wrists. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.” 

Infamously, things became catastrophic for Apollo 13 just two days after launching from Cape Canaveral. When an oxygen tank exploded on board, it crippled the Service Module and threw a spanner in the works no one saw coming. The expedition to the moon was promptly abandoned and the mission objectives were hastily rewritten – just get the crew home, and get them home safely.

Houston devised a rescue strategy that essentially moved the astronauts to into the Lunar Module. This craft, however, was not built to support so many people for such a long time. Therefore, to conserve energy, the crew shut down nearly all power – rendering their digital timers obsolete, and leaving the astronauts at the mercy of dark and freezing conditions. 

The damaged Service Module of Apollo 13 detaching from the Lunar Module.
The damaged Service Module detaching from the Lunar Module.
Courtesy of NASA

Things went from bad to worse for Lovell and the team over the next several days, and NASA worked around the clock to counter every little hurdle that was thrown their way. But after hundreds of calculations both in space and on the ground, it was at the final hurdle when the precision that Ragan admired in OMEGA’s Speedmasters was called for. 

Because the mission had drifted off course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles, it meant that the module would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle, bouncing back into space with no chance of recovery. Literally the worst-case scenario.

Therefore, to manually readjust the course of the craft, an exact 14-second burn of fuel was required. There was simply no room for error. Without their digital timers, Swigert instead used his Apollo 13 OMEGA Speedmaster to time the burn, while Lovell guided the craft using the Earth’s horizon as his guide. As Mission Commander James Lovell would later put it, “We used the 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 us back home safely.” 

To huge relief, the unique manoeuvre worked perfectly, and finally, on April 17th, 142 hours and 54 minutes after launch, Apollo 13 splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean. The watch had played its part and performed exactly as intended. 

Apollo 13 splashdown in the Pacific
Courtesy of NASA

Later that year, on October 5th, 1970, OMEGA was presented with NASA’s ‘Silver Snoopy Award‘ – a mark of gratitude for its contributions to the success of human space flight missions. When this prestigious award was first created, Snoopy was chosen as NASA’s unofficial mascot because he kept things light in serious situations – he became their proverbial ‘watchdog’.

50 years on, the sterling silver lapel pin is a prized reminder of OMEGA’s history in space exploration – specifically the silent role it played in the “successful failure” of Apollo 13. 

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