“Houston, we have a problem” is a phrase we’ve heard so many times. But where does it actually originate from? It’s not just a quote Tom Hanks says in the film Apollo 13, but it’s actually based on a famous line from the actual Apollo 13 mission. The mission was the third manned mission to land on the Moon, lifted off on April 11th, 1970 and the phrase was spoken by astronaut Jack Swigert, used to alert Mission Control in Houston, Texas of a major problem.
That day, the world held its breath as the Apollo 13 mission faced a crisis that jeopardized the lives of its crew. Just two days after the launch, the explosion in one of the oxygen tanks on the service module left the crew in a precarious situation. The mission was now to simply get the crew back home safely.
So how does the OMEGA Speedmaster come into play? The mission commanded by astronaut James Lovell, together with Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot, Fred Haise were each equipped with an OMEGA Speedmaster Professional chronograph as part of NASA’s official kit for all manned missions since 1965. Timepieces were known to be vital equipment for a mission to the moon. NASA engineer James Ragan says, “The watch was 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 always their wrists. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.”
Part of Mission Control in Houston’s rescue strategy was to move the astronauts into the Lunar Module. This craft, however, was not built to support so many people for such a long time, hence the crew had to shut down most of all the power in the craft, which means no digital timers, no lights and no heater. The mission had also drifted its course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles. This would mean that the module would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle and bounce back into space with no chance of recovery. Hence, the crew had to manually readjust the course of the craft with an exact 14-second burn of fuel.
Without their digital timers, Swigert instead used his OMEGA Speedmaster chronograph to time the burn, while Lovell guided the craft using the Earth’s horizon as his guide. Lovell would later say, “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 us back home safely.”
Against all odds, the crew was able to make it back to Earth on April 17th, 142 hours and 54 minutes after launch, by splashing down safely in the South Pacific Ocean making the mission one of NASA’s most celebrated and harrowing.
As a way to say thank you, on October 5th, 1970, OMEGA was presented with NASA’s “Silver Snoopy Award” for its contributions to the success of human space flight missions. Snoopy was NASA’s unofficial mascot because of his ability to keep things light in serious situations and acted as a “watchdog.” Today, the Speedmaster remains an iconic timepiece and a symbol of human achievement in space exploration and a beloved timepiece for watch enthusiasts worldwide.