‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’: Omega Honors the Apollo-Mission Speedmasters

‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’: Omega Honors the Apollo-Mission Speedmasters

A limited-edition Omega Speedmaster gifted to Jack Swigert and other Apollo-mission astronauts celebrates the infinite potential of humankind.
A limited-edition Omega Speedmaster gifted to Jack Swigert and other Apollo-mission astronauts celebrates the infinite potential of humankind.

N o event in the history of NASA has gripped the hearts and attention of the world as fiercely as the moments Mission Commander Jim Lovell called mission control on 13 April 1970 to report:

“Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Apollo 13 was NASA’s third moon-landing mission, but it was “plagued by bad omens and bad luck from the very beginning,” remarked Captain Lovell decades later. A mission to land on the moon quickly became a mission of survival, a fight against all odds and a triumphant display of teamwork and innovation from the Apollo 13 crew and mission control. 

First, Command Module Pilot John “Jack” Swigert Jr. replaced Ken Mattingly only two and a half days before launch due to a German measles threat. Printed materials including the official NASA invitation to the launching of Apollo 13 had already been printed with Mattingly’s name.

Then, after nearly 56 hours of smooth sailing, a routine activation of a fan in one of the service module’s oxygen tanks caused an explosion. Both oxygen tanks exploded, crippling the command module and sending debris into the atmosphere. The crew moved quickly, powering down the command module and moving to the lunar module for most of the return flight. Lunar Module Aquarius was used as a “lifeboat.”

Apollo 13 astronauts Haise (left), Lovell (center) and Swigert (right) wave to sailors after exiting the recovery helicopter on the USS Iwo Jima. 

Shutting down all but the lunar module caused the temperature of the vessel to drop to as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit, a chilling cold making it impossible for the astronauts to sleep. The walls of the vessel perspired. Oxygen and rising CO2 emissions became a problem. They were battling against their own breath.

During the four days required to fly around the moon and travel back to Earth, the crew had to conserve electrical power and oxygen all the while performing critical LM engine burns to ensure their flight path would indeed return them to Earth.

A perilous journey around the moon, an underdog from the backup crew, and a jubilant story of human resilience was summed up by President Nixon: “You did not reach the moon, but you did reach the hearts of millions of people on earth by what you did.”


The Silver Snoopy: Omega Earns Its Stripes

When the oxygen tanks exploded and the mission to land became a mission to survive, Swigert was integral in combating CO2 emissions by building filtering devices for Aquarius. Without all their systems, armed only with his Omega Speedmaster and a pencil, Swigert’s role among the three astronauts was the most exacting. Because it was a manual burn, Swigert oversaw timing, telling the other two astronauts when to light off the engine and when to stop it. Without this critical timing, the astronauts could have been off course from Earth by thousands of miles.

The Speedmaster’s accuracy and role in measuring those critical timed burns was celebrated by Swigert, Lovell and Haise immediately following their landing. On 5 October 1970, NASA honored Omega with the Silver Snoopy Award. The award was founded in 1968 as a way for astronauts to honor those individuals who showed “professionalism, dedication, and outstanding support that greatly enhanced space flight safety and mission success.” Accompanying the certificate, a sterling silver Snoopy astronaut lapel pin that was worn by the crew on Apollo 13. It is one of the awards that Omega is most proud of and continues to be presented in their museum in Switzerland. 


The Speedmaster 145.022BA “Tribute to Astronauts”

The Omega ref. 145.022 yellow-gold chronograph wristwatch was released in 1969 to commemorate the momentous occasion of the first humans ever to land on the moon. Produced as a limited edition of 1,014 pieces, the first 28 were presented during a gala on 25 November 1969 to commemorate the first lunar landing. These were presented to President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spirow Agnew (who were unable to accept due to federal limitations on gifts to public officials), as well as to each Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut who flew in space prior to the gala (the last being Alan Bean, whose first flight occurred during the Apollo 12 mission on 14 November 1969, just 11 days earlier).

Each watch was engraved, “To mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time,” with the recipient’s name and their respective NASA missions; each was also numbered on the case back. Omega then presented an additional 10 watches to those astronauts whose first flights occurred after the gala, ending with Ron Evans of Apollo 17. These had the casebacks engraved in exactly the same way except without a unique number. To the best of our knowledge, three examples were given to Swiss personalities and the remainder were released for civilians and engraved, “Omega Speedmaster-Apollo XI 1969 – The First Watch Worn on the Moon.” 


Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster, Unseen Since 1970

Omega Reference 145.022-69 Speedmaster Apollo XIII | Presented to Apollo 13 Command Module Pilot John “Jack” Swigert Jr. Estimate: $120,000–180,000

Truly a superlative example, Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster is offered in Sotheby’s Important Watches auction on 9 June. While the ref. 145.022 is alluring on its own, its provenance elevates this watch to immeasurable levels. An extract from Omega’s archives confirms the present ref. BA 145.022, with movement number 29.117.154, was completed on 9 April 1970, mere days before the Apollo 13 launch. This watch was presented to the underdog pilot Swigert, originally part of the backup crew.

Consigned directly from the family and unseen by anyone since it was first gifted, the watch is central to memories that Jack’s nephew holds of his family:

“Uncle Jack passed away when I was still a boy. I remember the matriarchs of my family rushing through the halls as they tenderly sorted through the contents of his Colorado home. I rummaged through his closet, fascinated by his personalized flight helmet; ‘Swigert,’ mom’s maiden name, printed in black across the back. I remember a trench coat, and thought, ‘Yeah, I’d look cool in that.’ A watch, nonetheless, a solid gold Omega Speedmaster, was never on my radar. 

“Grandma had called out, ‘Take a look at these, kids!,’ And we sped down the hallway to find two wristwatches: a Rolex GMT-Master and this Omega Speedmaster. Uncle Jack was photographed wearing his Rolex on many occasions. I remember it was worn down and scuffed up hard. And it was clear that the Omega was something much more special to him; something that was too precious for daily wear. I was mesmerized by its magnitude, both in physical weight and meaning, as it’s certainly no small thing to have been a NASA astronaut!

“I had always told mom to take the Omega if she had the choice. She did, and it has been in our family’s safekeeping ever since.”

Sometimes a watch is more than the sum of its parts, and this is no exception. It is a tribute to more than just the astronauts that flew – it is a memento of what mankind is capable of achieving when we pull together to find a way over and through and a reminder to all who see it of the infinite potential that humankind possesses.

Luxury Week

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top