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How Snoopy Ended Up On The Speedmaster, And The 50th Anniversary Of The Apollo 13 Incident

14th April 2020

In 2003, Omega released a limited edition Speedmaster which had a rather quirky addition to the dial and caseback. On the dial, in the running seconds sub-dial at 9:00, was an improbable little figure: a cartoon dog in a cartoon spacesuit, doing a cheerful jig against a stellar backdrop, with the words "Eyes On The Stars" above his helmet. The same image appears on the caseback. The dog in question is as instantly recognizable as the watch: It's none other than Snoopy, the adventurous, imaginative, and irrepressible beagle from Charles Schulz's famous "Peanuts" comic strip.

Snoopy ended up on the Speedmaster thanks to one of the most well-known close calls in the history of manned space flight, which took place fifty years ago today. The beagle first became associated with the space program thanks to Apollo 10, which was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. The Apollo 10 Command Module was called "Charlie Brown" and the Lunar Excursion Module, "Snoopy" (these were the actual official callsigns for the vehicles). "Snoopy" was chosen as the name for the LEM because its job was to "snoop around" for good landing sites for Apollo 11. In 1969, the "Peanuts" comic strip and its characters were a bona fide cultural phenomenon. The first animated special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, appeared in 1965, and Snoopy, who had an ongoing imaginary aerial feud with the Red Baron (Manfred Von Richtofen) in his persona as The World War I Flying Ace, was perhaps the breakout star of the entire "Peanuts" gang.

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Apollo 10 Commander Tom Stafford, with Snoopy, who's being held by Jayme Flowers, secretary to astronaut Gordon Cooper.

 

NASA, in search of a way to acknowledge technicians, suppliers, and support staff whose work was of especially, well, stellar value, came up with the idea for the Silver Snoopy Award in 1968. The Silver Snoopy Award is unusual in that it is actually awarded by astronauts, "'In Appreciation' For professionalism, dedication, and outstanding support that greatly enhanced space flight safety and mission success." The man responsible for coming up with the award was Al Chop, then the Director of Public Affairs for the Manned Spacecraft Centre, and the Award was supposed to help promote better and more positive interactions between the hundreds of thousands of people whose work was necessary to make each mission a success.

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Mission Commander Jim Lovell, launch day, Apollo 13.

 

This brings us to Apollo 13, which is sometimes called NASA's most successful unsuccessful mission, and with good reason. The mission took place during a period when interest in the lunar missions had begun to wane somewhat, but something very attention-getting happened at 55:54:53 (fifty-five hours, fifty-four minutes, and 53 seconds Mission Elapsed Time). The actual incident is recorded as having occurred at exactly 03:06 UTC on 14 April 1970 (10:06 PM, April 13 EST). One of the two oxygen tanks in the Service Module exploded during a routine maintenance procedure – a "cryo-stir" of the tanks' interior, intended to keep the contents from settling – severely damaging the spacecraft and making completion of the mission impossible.

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Jim Lovell inside the Lunar Module. Image, NASA.

 

The astronauts and ground crew were forced to come up with several creative solutions to get the astronauts home safely, including using the Lunar Excursion Module as a lifeboat. The LEM and Command Module remained connected to each other as both spacecraft looped around the Moon and headed back to Earth, and in what is probably the single most-talked-about use of a wristwatch chronograph in history, the astronauts used their Speedmasters to time a critical, 14-second mid-course firing of the LEM's rocket engine to correct their homeward trajectory. (This was an anxious moment for the crew and ground support staff for several reasons, not the least of which was that the LEM rocket engine had not been designed for such things and had rather been intended to support descent to the lunar surface. In the event, the burn went off without a hitch.)

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Recovery of the Apollo 13 crew; behind, the Iwo Jima.

The burn was timed so accurately that Apollo 13's command module and her crew successfully splashed down only a mile from the intended recovery point and just three-and-a-half nautical miles from the recovery ship Iwo Jima. To acknowledge the contribution Omega's Speedmaster made to the successful completion of the mission, the crew presented a Silver Snoopy Award to Omega in 1970.

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The Silver Snoopy Award presented to Omega by Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, the Apollo 13 crew.

 

The Silver Snoopy Award, by the way, gets its name from a little silver pin that was given to the award recipient, which is in the shape of the spacesuit-clad dancing beagle. The pins had actually been to space – first, on the Apollo missions, and later they went aloft during Space Shuttle missions as well.

Surprisingly enough, it was not until some time later – 2003, to be exact – that Omega released the first Silver Snoopy Speedmaster. This was a pretty straightforward Speedmaster, but with the Silver Snoopy emblem on the dial and also on the caseback. The watch was made in a production run of 5,441 but despite the large number, they now sell for well over the original list price. One has to be rather careful in buying one, as there are a number out there which were born as normal Speedmasters, but which had the dials and casebacks swapped out later (Robert-Jan Broer has a terrific breakdown of the 2003 Snoopy, as well as dos and don'ts if you're looking for one).

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Speedmaster Professional Snoopy ref. 3578.51 from 2003.

 

The other Snoopy Speedmaster was the more recent Speedmaster Silver Snoopy Award. This watch was launched at Baselworld 2015 (typing that made me pause for a moment and reflect on how unforeseeable the next five years would be for the evolution of the show).

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This was a limited edition of 1,970 pieces (1970 being the year that Omega was presented with the award by the Apollo 13 crew), and it features a silver image of Snoopy on the caseback, as well as on the dial. Unlike the jaunty spaceman Snoopy on the 2003 watch, the 2015 Snoopy is lying in a prone position (one imagines, on the roof of his doghouse, where his ability to remain balanced while asleep defied the laws of physics) and a thought bubble to the upper right of his head contains the words spoken by Ed Harris as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, in the film Apollo 13: "Failure is not an option." Snoopy himself is visible at night thanks to Super-LumiNova, and the words "What could you do in 14 seconds?" follow the second's track from 0 to 14 to commemorate the 14-second course correction engine burn the Speedmaster timed and which was essential for a safe return to Earth.

 

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Interestingly enough, both Snoopy Speedmasters have become increasingly expensive in the pre-owned market. Back in 2013, before the advent of the Silver Snoopy Award Speedy, Robert-Jan Broer already had reason to lament the rarity of the 2003 Snoopy Speedmaster on the secondary market, as well as its rising cost. The Silver Snoopy Award Speedmaster has likewise become difficult to find, at least at anything you might consider a reasonable price based on its price at launch – rather an amazing outcome for a rather niche version of the Speedmaster. Last September at Sotheby's, for example, one of them hammered for $23,500, over a high estimate of $7,000.

Given a choice between the two, I would find it very, very difficult – I suppose for me the 2003 version will always be the Snoopy Speedmaster, and I love the exuberance of the image of Snoopy, which really seems to capture the optimism and can-do attitude of the Apollo era. The fact that the Silver Snoopy Speedmaster's Snoopy glows in the dark, however, is very difficult to resist – and it exudes a childlike charm which I think has much to do with why so many enthusiasts (including Revolution magazine's founder, Wei Koh, as seen in Talking Watches) find it so irresistible.