2:51pm PT by Carolyn Giardina
George Clooney, Jim Lovell Headline Omega Gala
“I was really expecting Tom Hanks,” joked iconic astronaut James Lovell as he was joined Tuesday by George Clooney at a black-tie gala hosted by Swiss watchmaker Omega in Houston.
He was, of course, referring to Hanks for his portrayal of Lovell in Ron Howard’s 1995 Oscar-winning film Apollo 13. Tuesday's event — held in an aircraft hanger that was elaborately converted to look as if guests were dining on the surface of the moon — marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission and of Omega being awarded NASA astronauts' Silver Snoopy, which recognizes contributions to flight safety.
Clooney, Omega's brand ambassador, recalled the “optimism of the period” of space exploration, adding “this was the thing that lifted us up." He received applause when he asserted, “I hope we will continue to find ways to go back.”
Saluting NASA’s brave astronauts — Lovell, Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan were in attendance — Clooney also got a big laugh when he added, “and I hear they can drink pretty well.”
The emcee for the evening was Lily Koppel, author of The Astronaut Wives Club. An ABC series based on the book debuts June 18, and also on hand at the gala were series creator and co-writer Stephanie Savage and castmembers Yvonne Strahovski and JoAnna Garcia Swisher.
During the evening, the astronauts recounted the heroic effort to bring the Apollo 13 crew — Commander Lovell, Command Module pilot John Swigert and Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise — home after an oxygen tank exploded, crippling their spacecraft and forcing them to abort their planned lunar landing in 1970.
Omega Speedmaster watches were used on most Gemini and Apollo missions as a backup time keeper, having been tested for how they respond to factors such as intense sunlight, cold and g-force. “Your baseline for everything you do in space is time,” said Stafford, who presented Omega’s Silver Snoopy in 1970. “Because of what happened to Apollo 13, they lost electrical power; the only thing that they had left [to keep time] was the Omega watch.”
Lovell related that after the oxygen tank exploded, the astronauts had to make critical, precisely timed engine burns to correct their trajectory in order to get back to Earth. “Without our normal navigation equipment, we could see Earth and used it as a guideline,” Lovell said, recounting the tense final correction. “We could burn the engine for 14 seconds and then had to turn it off; we used the watch Jack Swigert wore."
Omega watches were on display during the gala, including a new limited edition — about 1,970 will be made — Speedmaster Apollo 13 Silver Snoopy Award ($7,350). As previously announced, the dial of this timepiece includes the words, “What could you do in 14 seconds?” and the memorable quote, “Failure is not an option,” along with a picture of Snoopy. The caseback has a silver medallion that is a replica of the Silver Snoopy pin. Lovell wore this watch during the gala.
Also on display were earlier Speedmaster designs worn by NASA astronauts as well as the 2015 collection, which includes the new Speedmaster '57, White Side of the Moon and four new designs in the Dark Side of the Moon series.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Omega president and CEO Stephen Urquhart said Omega would like to continue its support of NASA as the agency develops the Orion spacecraft with an eye toward going to Mars. "It would be presumptuous to say we have something in the draw today," he added. "There will be a need for another type of timepiece."
The exec related that Omega also provides Speedmasters to the European and Russian space agencies and is communicating with active or soon-to-be-active space agencies in China, India and Japan. Opportunities to innovate for private ventures (i.e. SpaceX) he viewed as more “limited.”
The Speedmaster wore by Swigert during the Apollo 13 mission is on display at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, and the Omega watches worn by Lovell and Haise, as well as astronauts from other NASA missions, are displayed at various museums around the U.S. As the story goes, however, the one wore by Buzz Aldrin during his Apollo 11 moon walk disappeared en route to the Smithsonian.