Watchmaking: the race to precision remains a challenge
In 1970, watchmaking accuracy, in this case, Omega’s Speedmaster Professional, played a central role in the Apollo 13 space mission’s return to Earth. Fifty-three years later, it remains a key component of the Swiss local industry’s vitality.
By Cristina D’Agostino02 mai 2023
While a race to mechanical performances has always punctuated Swiss watchmaking, the latter also reflects relentless fights between watchmaking manufacturers to win the highest recognition. Segments mainly organized around investment hubs specific to the brands’ history and heritage have slowly been taking shape. Some bet on the race to extra-thin movements, others compete for Grande complications, others want to be trailblazers in a recognizable design rather than focus on function, and there are those who aim for accuracy. In fact, two months ago, Omega launched a unique innovation in this field. Already showcasing solid performances for its high precision, the caliber Omega Co-Axial Master Chronometer 9920 movement, now equipped with a sleek balance spring setting system, the Spirate™, allows to reach an even higher level of precision, certified of only 0/+2 seconds a day by the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS), a record for the watchmaking industry. In this field, few manufacturers can compete on the industrial level. The invention of the Spirate™ system at Omega is a revolution in setting the balance spring and reshuffling the cards for the race to greater precision. Available only on the co-axial caliber that equips the Speedmaster Super Racing, the brand wants to launch it on a broader range of movements.
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The Apollo 13 adventure and the 14 vital seconds to return to Earth
While for many consumers, this race to mechanical accuracy in the digital era seems to only speak to connoisseurs, it is nevertheless revealing of what constitutes Swiss know-how: the ability to industrialize components necessary for its proper functioning on the micron scale. It is critical to the vitality of the Swiss local watchmaking industry. But this capability is not new. Fifty-three years ago, on April 11th, 1970, three astronauts owed it their lives or precisely 14 seconds of their lives. On the launch day of the Apollo 13 mission, no one on board, nor at Nasa, knew that an extremely complex return to Earth would play out in a quarter of a minute at the wrist of the module pilot Jack Swigert. One of the three other astronauts, the commander James Lovell later declared: “We used the Omega watch that Jack was wearing on his wrist while I was controlling the spaceship. Jack timed the engine combustion to apply the adjustment, allowing us to reach Earth safely.”
Indeed, it was during this mission, the third after the incredible Apollo 11 adventure and the first step on the Moon, that the famous sentence: “Houston, we have a problem” was pronounced. A strong explosion, generated by a short circuit following the start of the oxygen ventilation in the N°2 tank, alarmed the crew. Immediately, some of the module equipment named Odyssey, a tribute to the movie “2001 Space Odyssey” directed two years prior by Stanley Kubrick – were not functioning normally. A return to Earth was mandatory. Yet, it was not immediately possible. Soon after, energy, water, and oxygen needed to be rationed. The control center then asked astronauts to turn off the non-essential equipment to reduce consumption. The objective was no longer the Moon but to save the crew and operate a return to Earth at any cost. Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise then turned to the Aquarius lunar module, as its thermal shield, as well as its water, electricity, and oxygen equipment, could ensure a return to Earth. However, it was not conceived to shield three men or survive for 80 hours, instead of the 48 initially planned. The three astronauts had to adapt and live in a 3-degree capsule with little oxygen, too much CO2, and little water. The maneuver to return to the atmosphere was very delicate. Houston validated the only viable option: manually readjust the engine trajectory through a 14-second fuel combustion, as the lunar module navigating system was not adapted to its new mission.
On April 17th, the module landed in the Pacific Ocean. Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise were safely rescued on the American aircraft carrier Iwo Jima. Nasa managed the most incredible rescue operation in space, and the Speedmaster Professional chronograph legend was born.
In addition to being one of the pillars of the quality of Swiss mechanical watchmaking, precision here was at stake and vital.
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