While the Covid-19 pandemic has curtailed our liberty in physical movement for now, it hasn’t dampened our innate ability to dream however improbable a subject may seem. Many moons ago when our skies weren’t polluted by artificial light, our forefathers gazed at the countless distant twinkles faintly illuminating the night. Stars guided their voyages as they sought a new world and substantiated Hellenistic astronomers’ hypothesis that the world wasn’t flat. The Moon became a beacon for us to measure the passing of days. It was a cultural symbol that we long wanted to conquer. It became a yardstick for us to measure our progress as a species, a chequered flag for opposite societies competing on ideology and technology.
Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing led by Apollo 11, whose lunar module was piloted by Buzz Aldrin. The significance of the 1969 mission wasn’t just the fact that we landed on the moon, but also an intriguing case study of government-industry collaboration and capitalism. Apollo 11 was an example of a government project opening up to industrial players where an industrial power actively engaged with the private sector and leveraged on their expertise to gain an edge. The move eventually paved the way for a wider market-driven approach where modern-day technology firms such as SpaceX to expand and reshape our horizons and undertake a gargantuan task such as space exploration once thought impossible for a privately held company with limited resources.
Beginning with Apollo 11, the pluralistic foundation was laid by NASA and the private sector which manufactured the tools required to make the mission a success and complete the picture. When photography equipment was needed to document the mission, Hasselblad, Zeiss and Kodak supplied the camera, lens and film rolls respectively. Motorola manufactured the spacecraft’s data uplink system. Honeywell built the stabilisation and control system. The live broadcast of the moon landing propelled the role of the TV, the magnitude of being “live,” and accelerated the development of satellites – perhaps also giving rise to conspiracy theorists. When watches that could survive a moonwalk were needed, Omega supplied its Speedmaster Professional watches. Aldrin strapped on the ST105.012 before leaving the lunar module for his first steps on the Moon and Omega is forever entwined with moon landings.
The Speedmaster had already existed prior to the maiden moon landing, fondly known as a pre-moon Speedmaster. The original Speedmaster was a chronograph intended for racing being the first chronograph wristwatch to feature the tachymeter scale on the bezel – not on the dial. The Ref CK 2915 was produced from 1957 to 1959 and featured the famous manual-wound calibre 321. It was succeeded by the second-generation Ref CK 2998, which became the first Speedmaster in space. The watch was a personal possession belonging to astronaut Walter Schirra Jr, who wore it during the Mercury Sigma 7 mission in 1962.
NASA would officially approve the Speedmaster for use in manned missions in 1965 after the ST 105.003 survived the stringent test in order to qualify. Criteria imposed related to resistance to temperature, pressure, shock, vibration and atmosphere.
In 1965, the ST 105.003 became the first watch to be used in a spacewalk when Ed White ventured outside his spacecraft for around 20 minutes during the Gemini 4 mission. White would as a result be chosen for the Apollo 1 mission but died in a fire accident during training. In January this year, Omega unveiled the Speedmaster Caliber 321 Ed White with an updated calibre 321, paying homage to the astronaut. Schirra, who was a member of the second backup crew to the failed Apollo 1 mission, went on to become the commander of Apollo 7 fulfilling Apollo 1’s objective.
Alongside the production of ST 105.003, Omega also concurrently produced the first Speedmaster to have the word Professional inscribed on the dial – the ST 105.012 – which accompanied Aldrin’s “one small step” and formed the basis of today’s moon watch.
Perhaps by comparison, a little lesser known, Apollo 13 celebrated its 50th anniversary on April 11. The third moon landing was thwarted by a potential life-threatening technical failure involving an oxygen tank explosion on board, instead the crew did a loop around the Moon using their lunar module as a “life boat” prior to a perilous but safe return to the Earth. It is said that the rescue strategy involved moving the astronauts into the lunar module, which was not engineered to support three crew members for four days. Therefore, the crew had to conserve energy by shutting down nearly all power, including their digital timers.
During their return, their trajectory had altered and drifted off course by roughly 60 to 80 nautical miles. It meant they would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the wrong angle and risk bouncing back into space. To correct it, a 14-second burn of fuel was required. According to James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, they resorted to using the Omega watch (ST 105.012) issued to them to time the burn-off. After 142 hours and 54 minutes after launch, the crew crashed into the South Pacific.
Later in the year, NASA presented Omega the Silver Snoopy Award as a gesture of gratitude and to mark the brand’s contribution to the space mission. The partnership between NASA and Peanuts Worldwide, of which Snoopy is an iconic character, began in the 1960s. According to NASA, in 1968, the space agency chose the beagle as an icon who would emphasise mission success and act as a watchdog for flight safety. For the Apollo 10 mission, which required the lunar module to skim the moon’s surface to within 50,000ft and “snoop around” scouting the Apollo 11 landing site, the crew named the lunar module “Snoopy.” Today, NASA and Peanuts Worldwide’s partnership ranges from educational books to TV series.
Among Omega’s archives is the Speedmaster Professional Silver Snoopy Award unveiled in 2015, honouring the 45th anniversary of Apollo 13. On the dial, apart from Snoopy, is a small inscription between zero and 14 seconds of “what could you do in 14 seconds?” Atypical of Omega, no special edition of the Speedmaster has been announced for this year’s 50th anniversary. Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic has robbed us of a fine commemorative Speedmaster.
Few would have predicted that since the first moon landing and the pace of the subsequent missions, mankind hasn’t returned to the Moon since 1972. The final Apollo mission, the Apollo 17, ended in the same year. While the Apollo space programme might have concluded, it has profoundly transformed and advanced the way society functions and business is conducted, in a way this pandemic will inevitably.