52 Years Ago, Omega Played A Critical Role In Safely Returning Apollo 13 Astronauts To Earth
How and why the watchmaker received NASA’s prestigious Silver Snoopy Award.
As many watch fans know, the Omega Speedmaster, after a battery of tests conducted on multiple watchmaker’s submissions by NASA Program Manager James H. Ragan, emerged as the only timepiece to achieve the qualification of “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on March 19, 1965. This qualification led to the popular “Moonwatch” nickname of the timepiece.
Space Gear, Put To The Test
On April 17, 1970, the watch that served so well on the moon and in space, would assist three astronauts, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, to survive a critical mission error and make it home safely. Indeed, 56 hours after the successful launch of Apollo 13, an explosion ripped through the spacecraft and all electrical systems shut down, followed by two of the fuel cells failing, and, to top it off, most of the power was lost. The decision was made to abort the mission and return to Earth.
Thanks to the chronograph function of the Omega Moonwatchs they were issued, the three astronauts were able to time critical 14-second manual engine burns to reach the correct and tightly-defined angle at which the crew could re-enter earth’s atmosphere safely, without burning up on re-entry or bouncing off the edge of the atmosphere and into space.
The idea to create a more whimsical presentation for such a serious and prestigious award initially came from the public affairs office for the Manned Spacecraft Center (nowadays called the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center). The award is intended to honor individuals or contractors who played a crucial role in the flight safety and success of a mission.
Choosing the world-famous beagle was done in collaboration with Charles M. Schulz (Snoopy’s creator), who also happened to be a big enthusiast of the U.S. space program (he had drawn Snoopy on the moon on multiple occasions). Schulz was delighted to draw the astronaut-beagle found on the Silver Snoopy Award, and Snoopy quickly became an icon of the nation’s enthusiasm for space travel. NASA, impressed by the popularity of it all, directly assigned Snoopy as its official safety mascot in 1968.
When Silver Snoopy awards were handed out, the individual or contractor received a silver lapel pin that flew along on a NASA mission, a commendation letter (stating the mission the Silver Snoopy pin was flown on), and a signed, framed Silver Snoopy certificate. All this was delivered by an astronaut in person, at the workplace of the recipient.
The Commemorative Timepieces
In 2003, Omega launched its first Silver Snoopy Award commemorative Speedmaster, the Reference 3578.51.00, a limited edition of 5,441 pieces. This timepiece was basically a Speedmaster Professional made special with badging of Snoopy wearing a light blue space suit on a dark blue background with stars and the words “eyes on the stars” found both on the running seconds sub-dial at 9 o’clock as well as on the case back.
Fans of Omega, the comic character, or fans of space travel in general had to wait until 2015, the 45th anniversary of Apollo 13, to see another commemorative release of a Silver Snoopy Award Speedmaster; the reference 3188.8.131.52.04.003. This rarer offering was strictly limited to 1,970 pieces. This time, the watch was crafted with a white dial with a SuperLuminova-coated dreaming snoopy in the running seconds sub-dial at 9 o’clock attached to a phylactery in which one can read “failure is not an option;” a phrase directly associated with the Apollo 13 mission.
In addition to that, a small inscription between 0 and 14 seconds asks: “WHAT COULD YOU DO IN 14 SECONDS?” In order to make the watch easy to read at night, the hour markers, as well as the tachymetric bezel, were fitted with colossal amounts of lume, more than the Speedmaster had ever carried before. Last but not least, on the case back, a 925 silver Snoopy medallion is surrounded by dark blue enamel with sprinkled silver powder on each individual case back. This work was done by hand, making each watch even more unique. The watch also came with a 925 silver lapel pin of the famous beagle.
In 2020, aficionados got to discover the latest iteration, of a Silver Snoopy Award Speedmaster, the reference 310.32.42.50.02.001. This time around, to the surprise of Omega fans, the watch was not launched as a limited edition.
In terms of aesthetics, it is very different from its predecessors: It carries a 925 silver dial with dark blue sub-dials and, at 9 o’clock, the sub-dial of the running seconds proudly carries a Silver Snoopy medallion. On the case back, things get even more exciting: a see-through aperture is not there to view the movement, but to see an animation that comes to life once the chronograph is launched. Indeed, one can see the earth spinning as well as Snoopy himself in his command module wearing his spacesuit “flying” around the case back at the rhythm of the chronograph’s seconds hand.
(Photography by Watchonista)