What if?...Apollo 13.

Let’s say the astronauts lost all oxygen almost immediately, died, but the craft was largely still in the state it was IRL.

Can the craft be remotely controlled? If not and it either crashed into the moon or went off into deep space…could the craft still be tracked, and if it did crash into the moon would any kind of mission to recover the bodies ever be created?

Or if it went into deep space, I suppose some kind of unmanned craft could be launched to try and recover the craft. That would be an interesting feat of engineering.

I suspect we would have done all of the above.

Read James Gunn’s “The Cave of Night,” written years before the first manned launches. I think he nailed the gist of how we would react.

Are you saying you think NASA could have sent off an unmanned rocket into deep space, rendezvous it with the uncontrolled Apollo 13 and somehow get both crafts back to Earth and through a successful re-entry? Apollo 13 barely made a successful reentry with both NASA and the live astronauts working manually.

As for a recovery mission on the moon, readNixon’s Apollo 11 disaster speech, prepared in case those astronauts didn’t make it. Moving, but there’s nothing in it that implied “we’re going to bring them back.”

Not near reference books so doing this from memory, but I believe it was free-return trajectory, which means it would have been more likely to burn up in Earth atmosphere.
But, if that were not the case I don’t believe the capability existed to remote control the capsule.
If it had crash landed on the moon I think there’s a possibility a recovery mission would be launched, but I’d say it was more likely it would be treated like a memorial site, similar to the USS Arizona.
If it launched in to deep space then no, I don’t think there would be any practical recovery mission launched - or feasible.

Another interesting permutation would be if the crew survived the initial crisis, and there was no way to return in time…but they COULD make a controlled landing on the moon, and do some of their mission before expiring.

I’m watching a program now where Lovell is saying if they missed Earth, he would just radio as long as he could.

Also , I’m pretty sure any ‘deep space’ scenario actually results in a solar orbit*

*Are there any online solar simulators that show the present state of the solar system and what would happen to various craft shot off in different directions? That’d be awesome.

It was not on a free-return trajectory when the accident happened:

Basically, after the second firing of the S-IVB, it was on a free return trajectory (like all Apollo flights to the moon). However, in order to get into a lunar orbit that would allow them to land at the Fra Mauro formation, they did a mid-course correction shortly after the S-IVB separation that removed them from their free return trajectory. One of the first things the crew did after the accident (after stabilizing the spacecraft) was to do a course correction with the LM decent stage engine returning them to their free return trajectory.

The crew performed an additional major engine burn shortly after their closest approach to the moon, which shortened by their return time by about 10 hours (but they were already on a return trajectory at that point.)

I don’t think that ground control had the capability to control the spacecraft from the ground, at least not to the degree they would have needed to return the spacecraft. The astronauts in the spacecraft had enough trouble just pointing the spacecraft in the right direction (they were only using the control system of the Lunar Module, which was not really designed to be used while it was still attached to the command module)

In part because the original seven raised a stink about not being able to actually control their craft. The chimp shots, the first few Mercury shots, and pretty much all early Soviet shots were ground-controlled, IIRC, but space and equipment limitations made it pretty much either/or in the Gemini/Apollo era.

Lemme me make a speculation, if they had crash-landed on the moon: On some subsequent live moon landing, they would have gathered some token piece(s) of the crashed vehicle, and possibly some token piece(s) of the (now dessicated) bodies or their effects (piece of clothing or something) to bring back. People, collectively, might have gotten some sense of “closure” with that.

No, it would be unwise to start on a token effort…
People would say that you could "get 50 grams of bones ,then why didn’t do MORE ? " ( 10 tonne of crashed Apollo mixed with moon dust ??)

No you either do the job properly or you don’t do anything. - Witness USA ‘war graves’ policy. Either you are retrieving the body or skeleton (most of a skeleton, by some definition ), and finish the job at one go, or nothing.
The “recent” (last 5 years) France dig/investigation is odd - the remains could have been left in place, there’s many fragments, not many complete skeletons, why not just leave them. Why do DNA testing on a fragment from 1915 ? . It solved no great mysteries. Its more like a side show "look what we can do with science " …or “I get paid more since now I have more staff under me !”. But there at least they had the idea of "providing proof the soldier died ". That they didn’t survive and remain estranged after the war…

Even taking into account the mid course correction for a trajectory leading to a landing at the Fra Maura site, I think the spacecraft would have still slingshotted around the moon. I haven’t any idea in what direction it would have gone after that, though.

Sidebar: what is the France dig Isildur is referring to?


It would probably be left as a “space wreck” similar to a shipwreck/war grave and not been disturbed.

Apollo 17 brought pack around 243 pounds of rock. In the years the corpses would be up there on the Moon’s surface, they could potentially dehydrate enough to get in that range. The team would want to cut them out of the bulky suits though.

There is no way you could “cut” through the A7L suit without a rotary saw and a lot of patience. The Apollo 13 CSM, if not recovered, would have flown back the Moon and in a highly eccentric Earth orbit, but if it did impact the Moon it would do so with such velocity that the CSM and LEM (and likely the crew as well) would have been reduced to a field of shattered debris spread across many square kilometers of Lunar surface. A recovery mission would probably not be practical, at least not with a longer duration mission with a larger crew and several rovers at a minimum.


I’m going off a scenario in which they choose to land on the moon.

Yeah, a rotary saw is going to be too chaotic and risky in regards to debris in reduced gravity. I’m thinking a hydraulic cutting tool like the jaws of life would work. Or they could just try wiggling them out of the suits, but I’m thinking the arms would get stuck with them being dessicated.

I read recently, I think in Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, that the astronauts understood that disasters could happen and that no effort could or would be made to launch either a rescue or recovery mission. I forget who, but one of them said (paraphrasing), “We knew that we could die but we got to go to space so it was worth the risk.”

The astronauts were presumably extremely dedicated to science and space exploration. They would probably not want blood and treasure spent on recovering their bodies, but would prefer having it used for further exploration. And heck, I’m no astronaut, but I find the idea of my frozen and dessicated remains traveling through space forever pretty cool.

I don’t want to be too graphic about this, but even leaving the issue of weight aside, how exactly are you going to fit another body - even a dessicated body - into an Apollo capsule? Even if you managed to use only two astronauts on the recovery mission (risky, because didn’t you need two people to fly the lunar module?) they’d have a dead body in the seat next to them for a 3 day return trip.

It would have entered into a large orbit around the Earth, which are unstable. It would either crash into the earth, crash into the moon, or be ejected into a heliocentric orbit. Interestingly, the asteroid J002E3 is thought to be the third stage from Apollo 12: simulations suggest it remained in Earth orbit for about 6 orbits, was ejected into a solar orbit in 1971, and then 31 years later was recaptured by Earth. It again left the Earth-Moon system in 2003, but may return in the 2040s.

Edit, sorry, it was ejected after 6 orbits in 2002/2003. It’s not clear how many times it orbited in 1971: it wasn’t tracked.