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How an Omega watch changed the way NASA fixes the ISS

Since the year 2000, the International Space Station has been zooming through space at a blazing 17,500 mph, cruising a cool 260 miles above us. This high-speed orbit lets its crew of seven astronauts catch stunning views of nearly the entire Earth every 90 minutes.

But if we rewind to 2002, Don Pettit’s attention was fixated on something entirely different – a 45-millimeter circle. That’s the exact size of his trusty Omega wristwatch, enclosed in a tough titanium case, and loaded up with some high-tech Swiss watch wizardry, including the “calibre 5619” quartz-crystal tech, which had undergone rigorous testing alongside the European Space Agency.

Don Pettit opens up about his time as an astronaut

“Gills” is the key term here, as Pettit clarified during a Zoom chat with Wired. He pointed out that Russian cosmonauts go into space with the manual, hand-wound Omega Speedmaster—the same watch that was used for the Apollo missions, including the moon landing. And NASA astronauts continue to sport Omega watches. However, he chose to wear the digital Speedmaster because its titanium case has these sound holes.

It’s been more than two decades since this event unfolded, but it’s only now making its debut on Pettit’s Instagram, where he typically dazzles us with his mind-blowing astrophotography. This time, though, he had to pop off the vented case back for an unusual on-the-spot repair job, and little did he know, it would set off a chain of events with some pretty significant consequences down the road.

Also Read: After Chandrayaan-3’s success will ISRO foray into space tourism?

Omega Speedmaster’s loose crown made the situation worse for Pettit

Pettit pointed out that Omega has resolved these problems since then. However, the early version of the electronic Speedmaster he had experienced an issue with a loose crown, which is the primary interface for its many functions. The crown actually fell off and disappeared, as he recounted. And to make things worse, one of the four buttons had also come off. So, he ended up with a watch stuck in an old-school mode, showing Universal time.

Much to the joy of both space enthusiasts and watch aficionados, Pettit has spilled the beans on his clever watch-saving maneuvers. He used a Leatherman multi-tool, tweezers, a jeweler’s screwdriver, and the pièce de résistance—a strip of duct tape with the sticky side up—to make sure those tiny case-back screws, all eight of them, didn’t go floating off into the great unknown.

“I paid my way through college as a diesel mechanic for a logging outfit, so I feel comfortable with mechanical things and electric things, taking them apart and fixing them. I figured it all out myself. I didn’t have any instructions,” Pettit told Wired. “As you can hear in the watch-repair video, I make the comment: ‘The tool you use at the frontier to fix it is the tool you use to get the job done.’”

How Omega watch repair changed the supply chain for ISS

But two decades ago, this little repair gig wasn’t just about patching up Don’s Omega watch. According to him, it ended up shaking up NASA’s supply procedures in the early days of the ISS.

Pettit explained that during that period, the standard approach to space repairs was to swap out a malfunctioning component with a new one. The idea was not to disassemble the component in space. Until that point, the Space Shuttle had the capacity to transport 20 tons of supplies, with four shuttle flights annually, making spare parts readily available. So, the typical “repair mechanism” involved replacing entire units. However, he noted that this approach changed after the Columbia disaster occurred while he was in space.

Pettit is talking about the tragic event in February 2003 when the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry. This happened because it had sustained damage to its heat-insulation tiles during launch 15 days earlier. As a result, NASA’s shuttle fleet was grounded for a lengthy two and a half years. This unexpected situation forced Pettit to prolong his stay on the ISS from two and a half months to a whopping five and a half months before finally returning to Earth on a Roscosmos’ Soyuz capsule, marking a historic first for an American astronaut.

Also Read: Is interstellar travel really possible or just a distant dream?

Why did ISS reduce its crew size to just two astronauts?

Pettit explained that due to the shuttle’s grounding after the Columbia disaster, the ISS had to reduce its crew size to just two people. This posed a significant challenge in terms of maintaining food and water supplies for the crew. It forced NASA to rethink its approach to repairs.

When he sent down the instructions for fixing the watch, which happened around the time of the Columbia disaster, it proved that fine repairs could indeed be done in space. Taking apart and fixing a watch was a perfect example of “fine repair.” As a result, NASA’s maintenance team began considering the idea of disassembling and repairing components on the ISS rather than just replacing them.

Pettit acknowledges the power of social media

Well before Instagram became a thing, Pettit wasn’t making videos for likes or “instant gratification,” as he describes it. However, he has since come to appreciate social media for its potential to hold significant value.

Pettit explained that this experience really drove home a new way of thinking at NASA. It shattered the old stereotype that astronauts were all thumbs and clumsy. Instead, it showed that they possessed the dexterity and skill needed to perform delicate repairs on a spacecraft.

Knowing that Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act last year, which extends US involvement in the ISS until 2030 and paves the way for more commercial space players beyond just SpaceX and Boeing’s Starliner, it’s pretty awesome to see that over 50 years after Jack Swigert used his Speedmaster to time the crucial 14-second reentry burn on the troubled Apollo 13 spacecraft, Swiss watchmaking is still making its mark up there in space.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.