NASA and the Space Flight Awareness (SFA) Program
On July 29, 1958 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed, the organization knew full well that every man and woman who would eventually become part of the effort, would be required to venture into ever more unknown spaces of knowledge and consistently invent fantastic new technologies that are seemingly impossible.
In order to recognize the people who would achieve these milestones, not just for NASA, but for all mankind, the organization setup the Space Flight Awareness (SFA) Program, 1963. The program was initially called Manned Flight Awareness (MFA) and was later changed to SFA.
In its own words, “SFA’s mission has been to ensure that all employees involved in human space flight are aware of the impact their actions can have on astronaut safety and mission success. During this time, thousands of individuals have been recognized for their contributions to the success of NASA’s programs.”
The SFA was setup in the footsteps of the Mercury and Gemini Programs, and is noted to have had extensive impact on the success of the Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz projects with thousands upon thousands of people recognized to date.
SFA has enacted several award categories in its mission. These include the Flight Safety award Honoree award, the Management award and the Trailblazer award, just to name a few. But, no doubt, in the realms of horology, the most significant and well known of the lot is the Silver Snoopy award.
The Silver Snoopy Award
The Silver Snoopy award is, of course, best known because it features a universally beloved Snoopy, from the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. The award itself, is a sterling silver lapel pin, that has flown in space, along with a certificate of appreciation and commendation letter for the individual recognized, all of which is signed and presented by a NASA astronaut.
The SFA states that it is the Silver Snoopy award that best exemplifies its purposes. The award has a strict set of criteria that must be adhered to, and therein, according to SFA’s own materials “fewer than 1 percent of the aerospace program workforce receive it annually, making it a special honor to receive this award.”
To date, within NASA’s own databases, there is record of a little under 14,000 instances of the Silver Snoopy award being given out. Within this long list, there is an entry for October 5, 1970 when astronaut Thomas P. Stafford awarded the Silver Snoopy award to a Widmer, Hans of the one and only Omega watch company.
NASA and Omega
Unless were you under a rock in the past year, and beyond, you are surely well aware of the connection that NASA and Omega share. Nevertheless, here is the few key details of that story:
In wanting to equip astronauts bound for the Apollo missions with tested and proven gear and equipment, NASA sent out a tender called “Request for Proposal” or “Request for Quotation” (RFP & RFQ). was put together by the then-Assistant Director for Flight Crew Operations, Donald Slayton and sent out to a list of watch brands with a specification requirements document. The recommended brands on the list were: Elgin, Benrus, Hamilton, Mido, Luchin Piccard (sic), Omega, Bulova, Rolex, Longines (sic), and Gruen.
What is hilarious is that of the 10, only four responded: Rolex, Longines, Hamilton, and Omega. Hamilton’s offering was dismissed immediately, because it failed to fulfil even the most basic part of the specification, in that it was a deck watch, not a wristwatch.
With the technical specifications for the RFPs in hand, test engineer, Jim Ragan then took over to work with the Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance Division (SR&QA), setting up the grueling tests that the watches would undergo. These test watches were subjected to a battery of violent sequences of mechanical tests that included prolonged vibrations, heat, cold, humidity, pressure, vacuum, and so on. Being destined for the same treatment in space, the tests were indifferent to the type of instrument — identical tests were applied to watches as to cameras and other gear. The rest, as they say, is history with the Omega Speedmaster being pronounced, “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions”.
NASA, in the qualification document, dated March 19, 1965, wrote saying, “The results of operational evaluations by the astronauts show a unanimous preference for the Omega chronograph over the other two brands because of better accuracy, reliability, readability and ease of operation.”
The document then goes further to say, “The following modifications to the Omega Chronograph were suggested to improve its usefulness as a flight article:
- 1. Replacement of the fixed outer dial (bezel) with a rotatable dial calibrated in 24-hour increments.
- 2. Addition of luminous markings to the elapsed time dials.
However, pressed for time, these modifications were never implemented in the buildup to the 1969 lunar landing. Which means to say that the caliber 321 loaded in the ST105.003 and later, the ST105.012 and ST145.012, Speedmasters that NASA used all the way into the last Apollo mission in 1972, were all stock watches.
Houston, We’ve Had a Problem
Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which successfully landed man on the moon, and along with that the first wristwatch on the moon: the Speedmaster ref. ST105.012, strapped over Buzz Aldrin’s spacesuit as he climbed down onto the moon’s surface from within the lunar module (LM). That date was July 20, 1969.
Thereafter, there was Apollo 12 that saw astronauts Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr, Command Module Pilot Richard F. Gordon Jr. and Lunar Module Pilot Alan L. Bean become the second trio of men to successfully journey to the moon and back.
If the Apollo 12 mission is a bit of a faded memory then the ill-fated Apollo 13’s story is one that is all too pristine a memory in collective consciousness. Apollo 13 took flight on April 11, at 19:13 GMT from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, bound for the Frau Mauro highlands of the Moon. Onboard were mission commander, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, the command module pilot and Fred Haise, the lunar module pilot.
The mission was marred with signs of impending disaster as of launch, but 56 hours into the flight, an explosion on the craft caused all electrical systems to shut down, prompting astronaut Jack Swigert to utter the immortal words (often misquoted), “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”
Assessing the situation from their port hole, astronaut Jim Lovell saw gas being vented into space. One of the oxygen tanks immediately read zero and moments afterwards, two of the ship’s fuel cells failed. Soon after, they lost the majority of power to the craft.
It was at this moment that everyone involved in the mission understood that lunar exploration would have to wait. It was more important the crew of Apollo 13 be brought back home safely.
The strategy developed required the astronauts to use the moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot them around and back to earth. Easy enough? Not quite. The angle of the craft’s re-entry was not right for them to execute the strategy. Too steep and it would burn up from excessive speed; too shallow and in would bounce off the earth’s atmosphere, leaving the crew floating helplessly in space.
The pivotal point in the mission from a horological and cinematic perspective is the timing of the 14 second course correction rocket burn, using the Omega Speedmaster as the star of the show. While the narrative arc focusses on this one burn, there were 5 burns as part of the mission, 4 of which took place after the accident and all of which were essential to survival.
The story as it’s told is that, using astronaut Jim Swiggert’s Omega Speedmaster, the crew used the lunar module’s manually controlled descent propulsion engine to create 14-second mid-flight course corrections that allowed them to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere successfully.
Omega and the Sliver Snoopy
It was for the part that the Speedmaster played in space history and the crucial piece of equipment that it proved itself to be for the harrowing adventure that was Apollo 13, NASA awarded the Omega watch company with the Silver Snoopy award. The award certificate itself was signed off by all three Apollo 13 astronauts.
April 11, 2020 marks 50 years since the Apollo 13 flight. Already in celebrating their receiving the Silver Snoopy award, Omega first put out the 2003 Reference PIC 3578.51.00, Blue Snoopy.
The Blue Snoopy features Snoopy in a blue astronaut suit, on a black dial, in an edition of 5441 pieces — in reference to the length of the Apollo 13 mission — 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds. These easily command £12,000-£15,000. Not far behind is the white-dialed Silver Snoopy Award of 2015, issued in an edition of 1970 watches, with prices already reaching £10,000.
But it is the white dial 2015 ref. 3126.96.36.199.04.003, Silver Snoopy Tribute to Apollo 13 that takes the cake. Possibly one of the most collectable watches in recent memory, it is one of the most charming timepieces in existence and trading at well above four times retail price on the aftermarket.
This amazing tribute features a luminous Snoopy in the running seconds sub dial, declaring “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION,” while the seconds track at the perimeter of the dial reads “WHAT COULD YOU DO IN 14 SECONDS?” referring to the 14 second bursts that astronaut Jack Swigert timed on his Speedmaster. The best bit on the dial side has to be the ceramic bezel with luminous tachymeter.
The Sliver Snoopy lapel pin therein, is commemorated in the Silver Snoopy Speedmaster with a hand carved Snoopy figurine set against a backdrop of dark blue enamel found on the watch’s caseback. CEO, Raynald Aeschlimann once shared with Revolution about the watch saying, “Of course it’s not the objective but when you see how sought-after these watches are, how much they are trading for on the secondary market and how these prices are set in an organic way by buyers and not by market manipulation, it makes us feel as if we are creating the right kind of timepieces.”
The Silver Snoopy Speedmaster was, as mentioned above, made to mark the Apollo 13 mission’s 45th anniversary. And despite the present state of the world, it’s hard not to hold onto hope, with bated breath, for what Omega might unveil in marking the flight’s 50th anniversary.