IMG_0609_edited.jpg

THE LUNAR MODULE OUTSIDE OMEGA HQ

If you're enough into watches to be reading this, you most likely already know the deep ties between Omega and NASA, in particular when it comes to the Moon. This has been very much documented (recommended reading further below), and I won't have much added value to offer you on that front, so will keep the overview of that relationship at a very high level.


The Lunar Module (LM) specifically is intrinsically linked to the role Omega played in space exploration, and not just because Omega was, notoriously, the first watch on the Moon. That explains why Omega went to the effort of having a full-size replica of it set up just outside its headquarters, right next to the Omega Museum. This post will focus on the different facets deeply connecting the LM to Omega as part of the broader at times critical role the iconic chronographs made in Bienne played in space exploration.

A Brief Recap of Omega and NASA Collaboration

No suspense here: it's all about the Speedmaster. Launched in 1957, the first chronograph with a tachymeter on the bezel was initially designed for car racing. It was adopted, off-the-shelf, by several NASA members soon after. The Speedy then became the official watch for the Apollo program, launched in 1963, after having been first worn in space the year before. The now legendary timepiece successfully performed against watches supplied by other companies including Rolex and Longines during a series of tests measuring its adequacy for both intra and extra vehicular activities in the rough spacial environment. The watch was notoriously worn by Ed White, the first American to walk in space, during his 1965 Gemini 4 Spacewalk.


One noteworthy characteristic of the Speedmaster is that, unlike pretty much everything else NASA took into space, it was not custom-made to NASA specs, but rather used in its public, "civilian" version. That said, according to some accounts, the introduction of crown guards, in 1965, to better protect not only the crown but also the pushers, was at NASA's request. This topic is subject to fierce debate among collectors, as this forum thread illustrates. Regardless of its origin, the introduction of the crown guards is significant because it is what distinguished the watch as the "Professional" variant of the manually wound chronograph. Its first version, the 105.012, housing the legendary 321 movement to be replaced in the following generation, produced until1968, is what Buzz Aldrin wore on the Moon.

The Lunar Module

Again, my aim, let alone my ability, is not to give you a detailed historical or scientific account of the Lunar Module. In a nutshell, it is the component of Apollo missions that was designed specifically to land on the Moon, which it successfully did on six occasions. The Lunar Module was a "disposable" item, in the sense that it was not capable, by design, of flying back into the Earth's atmosphere. After serving its purpose of landing two astronauts on the Moon, from lunar orbit, while the third stayed in the Command Module, and then being used as a launch pad during the ascent phase from the Moon, it would subsequently be abandoned into lunar orbit.


The LM is small, at about 7 meters high, and was known to be particularly crammed for the astronauts, who shared just over 4 meters in diameter of space. There was no seating position, and they used removable hammocks to sleep. Despite its unimpressive dimensions, the Lunar Module is a very intriguing, and incredibly neat looking piece of equipment with, obviously, unique history. While the actual LMs used for space travel are forever gone, having burnt in the atmosphere, there is one actual unit that is still with us: built for a second test flight eventually deemed unnecessary, LM-2 is displayed at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.

The Omega Full-Size Replica

Before we go into why the Lunar Module is of such significance from an Omega standpoint, let's briefly talk about some of the specificities of its full size replica. It was set up in 2019 as part of the new Omega headquarters, also hosting its Museum. More information on the buildings can be found in the Landmark section of this site. Coincidentally, 2019 also marked the 50 years of the landing on the Moon. I was fairly surprised to not find more information about the replica itself online, such as its technical specificities (material, weight) or construction process. If anyone has additional information, I would be very grateful if you shared it in the comment section. According to a thread on Omega Forums, it was built by the Dutch company Hal 3 Projects, specialised in space exploration equipment modelisation used for planning and training purposes. The construction is described by Omega as an "exact replica" (minus, I am assuming, the Omega logos...), as you can see below.


I must admit that the first time I saw the replica outside Omega, I thought that while it looked neat, it also seemed a bit like a toy. Surely, the real LM could not have such a simplistic, almost fragile appearance? The external coating in particular seemed to me at first glance like it was straight out of a 1980s high school science project. But actually, upon subsequently paying closer attention to the Lunar Module in photos and documentaries from the Apollo days, it actually appears to be extremely realistic. I think it's what looks to the novice, such as myself, as aluminium foil wrapping that gives it such an unassuming appearance. As I later found out, it's not aluminium, but rather an insulation control blanket with multiple layers made of aluminised kaptan and mylar film. The coating's role is to protect the vehicle from the sun's heat.

Why the Lunar Module Matters from an Omega Standpoint - Part 1

Let's just get this out of the way: the Speedmaster Professional is, and rightly so, first and foremost known for being the first watch ever worn on the Moon. The connection to the Lunar Module is here particularly obvious. While Neil Armstrong, for reasons explained further below, was not wearing a watch when he wade his famous "small step", Buzz Aldrin had his Speedy strapped on the NASA-provided velcro when he joined him a few hours later.


While I can't resist adding those great photos just above and below (disclaimer: I cannot take credit for them...), I will stop here regarding the account of Apollo 11, which has been more than extensively documented, as well as used, quite understandably, in Omega's marketing. For those of you who want to learn more, or re-immerse yourself into the incredible tale of the ambition set 7 years earlier by President Kennedy, I will provide a selection of recommended links at the end of this post. Personally, before going over with my kids to take some pictures for the purpose of this blog, I also made them watch the Apollo 11 documentary (tip to other parents: even with all the Moon stuff, it's still a documentary with a lot of fairly technical talk... they enjoyed the Apollo 13 movie a couple days later a lot more).

Why the Lunar Module Matters from an Omega Standpoint - Part 2

Now, we're entering into slightly less obvious territory, although most Omega fans will know this story as well. It answers the question of why Neil Armstrong was not wearing his Speedmaster when he walked on the Moon. I've heard several rumours about this, including that, unlike Buzz Aldrin, he was much less into the whole "commercial" aspect of things, and didn't see the point of giving a watch brand any publicity for the feat.


According to most accounts, the reason Armstrong left his watch inside the LM is actually because the vehicle's built-in timer had malfunctioned, and he left it inside as a substitute. Similar versions state there were several onboard timers, and one of them had broken. In any event, given that, at this point, Buzz Aldrin was still inside the LM, and had his own watch strapped to his wrist, the underlying fact here is that Armstrong was concerned about how the watch might react outside of the vehicle and on the Moon. Assuming Aldrin would wear his on his own moonwalk, Armstrong wanted to be sure there was at least one clock working on board once they returned for takeoff. This explanation of why the watch was left in the module is the one found on the NASA website, as well as the National Swiss Museum's, based on the account in Aldrin's autobiography.


There is however a slightly alternative version out there. While the two sources mentioned previously should be enough to put a final stamp of authenticity on the rendering, it is hard to ignore the explanation provided by the current President & CEO of Omega himself, Raynald Aeschlimann, quoted in an article by no less than the New York Times: "Neil Armstrong left his on the lunar landing module because he wanted to be sure he had a timekeeping device he could rely on when he returned to the module. That’s an incredible story of trust in a Swiss Made timepiece." Although this does not contradict the most common theory outlined in the previous paragraph, it does seem to come from a different angle. While the fact may still be implied, Aeschlimann does not explicitly mention the broken onboard clock (and I could not find another quote or article where he does). Rather, his point is that, before anyone ever walked on it, the Moon was an uncertain environment to say the least, and Armstrong wanted to make sure he had the most reliable timing instrument still working for the critical manoeuvres needed to get home after departure. Of course, one of the onboard timers failing would certainly be a good reason to have more faith in the Speedmaster. But the angle chosen by the Omega President, perhaps out of elegance to avoid pointing out the failure of another clock, is focused on the intrinsic value and reliability of the device made in Bienne.


What is very cool, regardless of the angle, is that the Speedy exceeded Neil Armstrong's expectations: the one worn on the Moon by Buzz Aldrin worked fine during the walk, as well as all the way back to Earth. That special feeling that the watch could make it to the Moon and back is a great sensation that every Speedmaster Professional wearer can enjoy still today. Ultimately, the greatest threat to Buzz Aldrin's Speedmaster was not all the hardship imposed by the Apollo 11 ordeal. Rather, while the watch did fine on a trip to the Moon, it did not do so well when shipped from Houston to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C, during which it mysteriously disappeared. Neil Armstrong's watch, on the other hand, safely made it to the capital, where it is still displayed today.

Why the Lunar Module Matters from an Omega Standpoint - Part 3

If you're into Omega, you definitely know the story about the role the Speedmaster played in Apollo 13. But if you've watched the Apollo 13 movie, paying close attention to the "Speedy moment", you might still be asking yourself a question: why 39 instead of 14? No idea what I'm talking about? No worries, we'll get to that in a bit.


Let's first start with a quick recap of the basics. Famously described as a "successful failure", the Apollo 13 mission could have ended up tragically after an oxygen tank exploded, preventing the Command Module, the core vehicle for the journey, from adequately hosting the astronauts. The three men then found refuge in the Lunar Module, despite it only being designed for use within the Moon's orbit. Moreover, the LM was meant for two people over two days, not three people over four days. After some drastic cuts to its power consumption, including heat and the onboard clock, and some clever ad hoc engineering to make the square CO2 filters from the command module fit into the Lunar Module's sockets designed for round ones, it is the home that saved the three astronauts from ending their life in space.


The role the Speedmaster played on Apollo 13 was more critical than on any other NASA mission. In order to correct the trajectory coming back into the Earth's atmosphere, and avoid being bounced back into space, the ship had to perform a course correction by manually burning the LM's fuel. As the clock on board was no longer working, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert used his Speedy to time the manoeuvre for 14 seconds. This episode has led to significant, and totally justified, marketing from Omega, including the launch of an Apollo 13 edition of the Speedmaster, celebrating its 45th anniversary, with 14 seconds highlighted on the dial's outer ring and the now famous slogan: "What could you do in 14 seconds?" The Sliver Snoopy Award, by which NASA recognises outstanding achievements from its suppliers, was received by Omega after the Apollo 13 crew returned safely. It has since been closely associated by Omega with the episode, as shown on the 9 o'clock counter and the back case of the watch.

For anyone aware of the famous 14 seconds moment, the manual burn scene in the Ron Howard Apollo 13 movie can be quite surprising, as mentioned earlier. Why does Commander Jim Lovell, aka Tom Hanks, ask Jack Swigert to time 39 seconds and not 14? The main explanation is that there were actually multiple manual burns performed during the return journey onboard the LM. In the image further above taken in front of Omega's replica, the explanatory text on the plaque mentions "live-saving rocket burns", in the plural. The text on the Omega site page for the Apollo 13 Speedmaster equally refers to 14 seconds as "the amount of time it took the Apollo 13 astronauts to perform one of the smaller mid-course corrections". Indeed, several corrections had to be made, and we can easily understand why Omega focused on the shortest one: not only does it make for a more aesthetic dial decoration but, more importantly, the precision of the timepiece obviously comes more into play the shorter the duration of the timing. Inversely, for the movie director, 14 seconds is too short to build up the dramatic intensity of the scene, and choosing a burn with a longer duration makes sense. For those interested in digging further into this topic, here is a short Reddit thread with useful links to transcripts and other logs.


Visiting

The replica is just outside the HQ, near the Museum. You really can't miss it. The address is Rue Jakob-Stämplfi 96. Because the replica is outdoors, it is accessible at any time, and on any day. That said, while it is certainly neat and worth taking a close look at, it only really makes sense as part of a broader visit including also the Museum, a stroll around the HQ's buildings, and, soon, for those interested, the Omega boutique opening right next to the LM replica. Tips on visiting those can be found here.

References

On top of the links already included above, I once again relied on several great articles found online. Below are the links to the ones I most recommend reading if you're interested in going deeper.

"The Omega Speedmaster's 14 Seconds of Fame" - Forbes

"Revisiting the History of the Omega Speedmaster with the Astronauts Who Wore Them" - Hodinkee

"Reference Points - Understanding the Omega Speedmaster" - Hodinkee

Seeing Inside the Lunar Module - Popular Science.

 

©2020 Made in Bienne (Where else?)