Looking at the Apollo 13 mission timeline within three hours after the explosion of O2 tank two all oxygen in the SPS was completely depleted. Fuel cells #1 and #3 were off line. CM had even started to cannibalize its reentry batteries, before it was shut down. The damage to the SPS was unknown and deemed unreliable (you couldn't fire it with the LEM attached anyway) [see comment]. It seems to me that, at that point, the Service Module had no resources that were of any use anymore.

What were the reasons NASA opted to keep the SM attached for the rest of mission? I would expect that attitude and trajectory control would have been much easier without hauling the dead SM around.

The only explanation I could think of was to protect the CM's heat shield from direct exposure to space?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The SM SPS was very much usable with the LM attached; it's how the trip between TLI and CSM/LM separation was normally done. What couldn't be done with the SM SPS was to initiate a direct abort trajectory while keeping the LM; besides the unknown state of the SPS, a SPS midcourse abort required LM jettison, which was deemed unacceptable (would have left the crew without their lifeboat). And while I don't have any references handy (I might look around later if nobody beats me to it), protecting the CM heat shield was probably a major reason behind the decision to keep the SM attached. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Thanks for the clarification. I thought that was a little wacky :) It seems I misunderstood the mission report. On page III-17 it says "It was obvious that we were committed to going around the moon rather than performing a direct abort because the large delta V could have been supplied by the SPS only if the LEM were jettisoned, but that was out of the question." So they would have been forced to lose mass in order to pull of a direct abort. That make much more sense. $\endgroup$
    – djf
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ There was a question here where someone calculated (in a comment, unfortunately, so not searchable) that it should in theory have been possible to get the delta-v required for a midcourse direct abort without LM jettison. However, I'm sure NASA at the time had people double-check all possibilities including that one, so there's probably some non-obvious reason why that still wouldn't be sufficient, and I don't remember if that scheme would have required SM jettison. About all we know with full certainty is that in the end they decided on a circumlunar free return trajectory abort using the LM. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ There also was the uncertain state of the engine because they didn't know exactly what had gone wrong. If the engine is damaged and they try a direct abort the mission is lost. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 2:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @djf: Couldn't they have gotten as much ΔV as possible out of the SM, then switched over to the LM's DPS and then the APS? $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 23:57

1 Answer 1


It appears that your speculation is correct. From the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Apollo 13 Mission Overview (emphasis mine):

On the Apollo spacecraft, the Service Module (SM) was intended to provide most of the consumables such as oxygen, water, and power for the mission. It was also designed to serve as the primary propulsion and maneuvering system of the spacecraft. The explosion of the oxygen tank however, led to the loss of the consumables and rendered the service module nonfunctional. The SM was retained until just before reentry to protect the command module heat shield from the possible degrading effects of long exposure to the cold of space.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I found more along those lines in the mission operations report . On pages 20 and 23 it mentions "[a] concern was the cold environment to which the heat shield and CMRCS would be exposed [to]" and "uncovering the heat shield of the CM for many hours and thereby reaching the hazy area of thermal limits" $\endgroup$
    – djf
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ @djf: Why oh why didn't they test the heatshield in space before sending it on a munar mission? $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 23:58
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ When you are schedule and budget limited, why would you test a scenario that was never supposed to happen? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ Was the SM RCS unusable too? $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ikrase at least quad C had no power and couldn't be used. hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a13/A13_MissionReport.pdf p.32 $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 20:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.