Apollo 13 astronauts arrive home
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If you are a fiftysomething man, the rescue of Apollo 13, the first and only lunar mission to fail to achieve its objective of landing on the moon, remains an indelible shared memory, like Ali and Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle or The Beatles’ roof-top concert in Savile Row. Those epochal events were played out in public, notwithstanding the fact that saturation news coverage had yet to be invented. They gripped the world when the world had better things to do than stare at screens all day.

I was 11 when my father held me aloft in our back garden, in July 1969, and pointed a finger in the sky. He asked me to imagine the ungainly shuffling of two men in the dust of the pitted lunar surface, and urged me never to forget this moment. A year later, the story of Apollo 13, of lesser import but greater drama, made an even bigger impact.

We may have been in thrall to the technical bravura of Nasa’s operations, but the manoeuvres that brought the crew of Apollo 13 safely back to earth were a tribute to something else: human ingenuity, calmness under pressure, brilliant improvisation. The tired, disoriented astronauts of the seemingly doomed mission survived thanks to a sock, a roll of duct tape, a couple of plastic bags — and a wristwatch.

The story is familiar to any student of space travel: as the damaged vessel hurtled towards Earth, the crew had to conduct a series of midcourse corrections. But they had no clock: the capsule had been “powered down” to save itself for re-entry. They were forced to time the surges of their engines using their Omega Speedmasters. The improvised tweaks worked, the crew was saved.

And a Swiss watchmaker had achieved perhaps the greatest marketing coup in the history of luxury branding.

Not that it realised it at the time. For years, Apollo 13 was seen as something of a humiliation. The command module, in which the crew landed back on Earth, was lent to France to be displayed in a museum. The Apollo programme was cancelled: there would only be four more missions, all of them successful.

But the release of Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 prompted a revisionist account of the rescue, which then began, a quarter of a century later, to be seen as a glorious, rather than ignoble, failure.

To the extent that, last week, Omega organised a celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission in an airfield in Houston, not far from the mission control which helped guide the craft to safety. The rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts is seen today as a triumph.

The command module back on Earth

As a guest of Omega, I attended a dinner, held in a hangar decked out spectacularly to resemble the lunar surface. The event was enlivened by exchanges between Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, an implausibly sprightly 87, fellow Apollo astronauts Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan, and Omega brand ambassador George Clooney. “I was expecting Tom Hanks,” joked Lovell, referring to his onscreen impersonator in Apollo 13. Clooney, another fiftysomething man with a long memory. “This was a time when we needed these people to dream,” he told the guests. “A time when the world was falling apart. We had problems with the Soviets, with riots, racial tensions at home, Vietnam. This was the thing that lifted us up.”

Can there be a greater synergy of men’s interests than that between watches and space? You can forgive Omega for feeling that it has that particular marketing niche sewn up.

The Speedmaster’s association with space travel goes back to 1962, when a couple of Nasa astronauts bought their own models in Houston, to use on their forthcoming Mercury flights. Remarkably, the company had no idea that its watches were being worn outside the earth’s atmosphere until they spotted one on astronaut Ed White’s wrist during his historic spacewalk in 1965. “Nasa never came to us,” Omega president Stephen Urquhart told me. “All they did, eventually, was to inform us that they put the watch on a Velcro strap so that it could fit around the astronauts’ uniform.”

Jack Swigert being prepared for Apollo 13’s launch sequence

The relationship was formalised after Nasa tests showed the Speedmaster Professional to be the most reliable. It became the first, and only, watch to be worn on the moon when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in 1969. As a marketing executive for the company, Urquhart’s job was to listen to the astronauts’ communications to see if “Omega” was mentioned. “That would have been a bad sign, because something would have gone wrong. I never heard the word.”

As part of the anniversary, Omega will issue 1,970 special edition Moonwatch Silver Snoopy Award 45th Anniversary Chronograph watches (£4,630, available from September) to commemorate the prize Nasa awarded to the company for its role in the Apollo 13 rescue. The Peanuts character cartoon has long been a Nasa mascot, and the watch’s dial replicates the strip’s humour, featuring a prostrate, sleeping Snoopy dreaming the words (credited to the flight’s mission control director Gene Kranz): “Failure is not an option.”

There was an inevitable air of nostalgia about the evening in Houston. First, for the idealism of the Apollo missions, which, although stoked by superpower rivalry, was born from a sense of adventure that is hard to imagine today. We live in an age of astonishing technological innovation, but there is the nagging feeling that it lacks ambition and romance. The slimness of an iPhone cannot compare with the vastness of the sky. All the astronauts present lamented the demise of the US space programme, which symbolises those shrinking ambitions.

Omega Moon watch Silver Snoopy Award 45th Anniversary Chronograph

Then, there is the rescue of Apollo 13 itself. It was the high-tech, multi-million-dollar mission with the low-fi resolution. Yes, Nasa’s technology was, for its time, extraordinary. But it was also fallible. It would not have been able, on its own, to guide the astronauts back to Earth. They needed the help of ordinary objects to devise their own salvation. Plus the reliability and precision of a handcrafted, mechanical wristwatch, relying on centuries-old technology, honed to the highest standards. We understand the cogs of a timepiece better than the miraculous microchips on which we depend today. Does that not give us a kind of comfort?

Finally, there is the relationship between Omega and Nasa, which started, not out of any conscious exploitation of mutual corporate interests, but with remarkable naivety: a couple of astronauts going shopping for boys’ toys in Texas. They liked their new watches. They wore them to space. They seem like innocent times.

Urquhart admitted that the company “thanks its lucky stars” for being able to build upon such a legacy. “I’m amazed by how many people who weren’t even born then are absolutely enamoured with the story, its culture, its romanticism,” he said. “They are wearing the watch that was worn on the moon.”

And, even more importantly, saved those who never quite made it.

Photographs: Nasa; Bettmann/Corbis; Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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