"In Event of Moon Disaster:" when would they have shut down communication?

Prior to Apollo 11’s touchdown on the moon, a speech had been prepared for Nixon to read in the event that things went Very Badly.

Is it clearly documented somewhere that NASA would have unilaterally terminated communications with the lunar module before its occupants actually died?

Armstrong and Aldrin both IIRC answered the question sometime later by saying if there was a problem, they’d keep working it right until the end, and so would everyone at NASA. That certainly would have been the public line, that they were still working the problem. So I’m pretty sure it’s No.

I see no conceivable reason why NASA would have shut down communications in the event of disaster… but I could see them maybe ceasing to broadcast live to the public. Communications would have still continued between NASA and the astronauts, though

Those communications weren’t encrypted or anything like that, were they? I would expect that any radio amateur with some decent equipment could have listened in on at least the moon-to-earth side of the communication.

So whether NASA would have officially released the astronaut’s last words or not, it is unlikely that they would have stayed secret.

They had an encrypted channel where they could talk during emergencies. The speech BTW was made by Nixon on his own initiative.

NASA would have continued until the astronauts were dead.

Because someone will.

No, they wouldn’t have shut down communications, if for no other reason than to get as much information about the failure as possible and do everything to prepare the astronauts and their families for the eventuality of death. I’m not even sure why you’d assume that communications would be severed.

Apollo XI used the Apollo Unified S-Band System. I don’t believe it was encrypted in the sense that we would use an encryption today but it used crude (by modern cellular standards) methods to multiplex the signals that would have required both complex receiving equipment and expert knowledge to receive. I don’t think communications with crewed spacecraft started until the Space Transportation System (STS “Shuttle”) where it was a requirement due to carrying classified DoD payloads.


Did they shutdown public comm for Apollo 13 after the problem?

If the movie is accurate, the TV networks ignored stuff on that flight until the trouble started.

No assumption on my part. Pretty much every time I see that speech mentioned, it’s accompanying by an article declaring as much. It seems to be an integral part of Safire’s memo, included in notes accompanying the text of the speech.

See Safire’s original memo here.

There’s also this article, which references commentary by Safire himself:

It’s also mentioned in the article I linked to in my OP:

Hyperbole from a political pundit and the 24 Hour Ancient Aliens Network is not fact. Mission Control would leave communications open until telemetry from the vehicle could no longer be received. Hell, we have space probes vastly beyond their mission lifetime that are still being monitored today and will continue to be monitored until their power supplies run out.

The astronaut corps knew then (and knows now) that there is significant risk in crewed spaceflight. They accept that risk, but with the caveat that everyone supporting them–engineers, technicians, mission planners, flight surgeons, and mission controllers–will do everything humanly possible to mitigate the risks and recover from a failure. The notion to turning off communications to a doomed crew of astronauts is so absurd as to be nearly inconceivable.


I think people are misreading the intent of the memo for dramatic purposes. The memo says “After the President’s statement, at the point when NASA ends communication with the men: A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea…”

It is referring to the procedures after the point when communications are no longer useful (most likely because the astronauts are incapacitated due to lack of oxygen). It doesn’t mean they are going to just cut off communications and leave them to die in silence.

In a worst case scenario, where the LM’s ascent engine failed and they made no progress in getting it to work, I think that Armstrong & Aldrin would have said their goodbyes to their families but NASA would never have broadcast that live (or at all). Then I think the two astronauts would simply have turned off their transmitter long before their final moments. What reason would they have not to?

That’s ludicrous IMO. It’s grim to consider, but there’s a lot of data NASA can collect on system failures and survivability. Why on [del]earth[/del] the moon would they turn off communications while the astronauts were alive?

Suppose the ascent engine had failed to fire. How long would they have had to get it working? Presumably they had to time firing attempts such that they could successfully return to the capsule.

^ This.

What purpose would turning off communications serve? That makes no sense to me. It would be like turning off an airplane black box 30 seconds before a crash. Even if it won’t save the life of the astronauts who knows what information might be gained that could help the next guys?

There’s nothing particularly complex about encryption of that day, simple XOR gates is all. However I agree that such equipment wasn’t taken to the Moon; the added weight vs. the need for secrecy, I think the balance leans toward saving weight.

We wouldn’t have cut communications, it seems we waited a couple years to hear back from Spirit rover after she passed away … hoping … waiting … [sigh]

Communications had to stay on. What if NASA turned off communication, but then the astronauts suddenly said excitedly, "Hey Houston, good news, we fixed the engine problem after all!" only to find that the comms were shut off on Houston’s end? That can’t be done.
Mission Control **has **to stay on line. As long as the astronauts might possibly need them.

In James Michener’s “Space”, one section tells about an Apollo 18 flight, where while 2 crewmen were off exploring the lunar surface with the lunar rover, a solar flare catches them by surprise. The ascent stage crashes while attempting to launch, and the Command Module Pilot has to fly back alone. The Mission Commander and the CMP had been very good friends since the time they served together in Korea.

Here’s something to ponder… if a landing crew ended up marooned on the Lunar surface, do you think NASA would have brought the wives in for a final goodbye to their husbands? The Soviets brought in Vladimir Komarov’s wife for that purpose during his Soyuz 1 flight.

That made me laugh … NASA would keep the communications on until they needed the bandwidth for something else. Aren’t there equipments left there by the Apollo missions that are still transmitting?

CollectSpace forums is pretty reliable and has former NASA personnel on it. They do say that a private radio loop was available and controversially unused during the Apollo 15 heart issues.