Say they landed on the moon but discovered the ship was damaged during the landing and they could not launch again.

What would have been the plan? Would another crew have been sent to rescue them? Would the astronauts just have to wait till they ran out of supplies to die or was there a procedure in place for them to commit suicide in a painless way? How long could they have survived on the moon?

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    $\begingroup$ Apollo XI did not have enough potatoes (or other things) to last until Apollo XII would be ready ;) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 24, 2017 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MichealKorörling The astronauts could easily have been stranded on the moon, however it would probable not be because of descent damage.. Because of the ascent stage's corrosive fuel, the engine could not be test fired beforehand, so the ascent was the first time the engine was fired. A defect in the engine could easily strand the astronauts on the moon. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, actually it very nearly happened. When Armstrong and Aldrin climbed out of the LM, one of them bumped and broke the breaker switch that armed the ascent engine. Aldrin jury rigged a repair with his pen. Had they not been able to do that, they would have been stranded. cnbc.com/id/42592372 $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    May 24, 2017 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ I would imagine that given plenty of time, they could have taken apart the switch and "hot-wired" the ascent arm. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ Even if another rocket had been ready to go immediately, you need to factor in the amount of time that would be required to analyze why the landing failed and to develop new procedures or make modification to the next craft. There's no point in sending a second craft along if its just going to suffer exactly the same fate. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2017 at 6:56

8 Answers 8


The following is a speech written for President Nixon, in the event that the Apollo 11 mission did not succeed.

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.

In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

This confirms there were no plans for a rescue mission if Apollo 11 wasn't successful.

Edit - 29 April 2021

As stated in this news item,

The plan had always been that if Armstrong and Aldrin crashed or were unable to leave the moon's surface, Collins was to head back to Earth alone.

A prepared contingency statement from President Richard Nixon, to be read out if the worst happened, made no mention of Collins.

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    $\begingroup$ relevant xkcd: xkcd.com/1484 $\endgroup$
    – Kartik
    May 24, 2017 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'd read some political fiction, in a world when Nixon had to deliver this speech. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    May 25, 2017 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ relveant Vsauce: youtu.be/QBK3QpQVnaw?t=564 $\endgroup$
    – Melkor
    May 25, 2017 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ If only NASA took this much risk now, we might get beyond "plans" to go anywhere. $\endgroup$
    – Jonathan.
    May 29, 2017 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ This might suggest there were no plans for a rescue, but it hardly confirms it. $\endgroup$ May 30, 2017 at 12:44

The Apollo lunar module was battery powered, so could only maintain a livable environment for a few days (this was a major concern for Apollo 13, since the crew was reliant on the LM after the accident which disabled the service module). Once out of power, it would be unable to circulate air or to maintain a comfortable temperature inside.

Committing suicide on the moon, fortunately, is trivially easy. Once the LM was nearly out of power, they could depressurize the LM cabin while their suits weren't sealed (or exit the LM and then unseal their suits). They'd lose consciousness in a few seconds, albeit with some discomfort from the rapid depressurization, and die shortly thereafter.

As noted in other answers, there was not another rocket stacked and ready to launch in time to effect a rescue. If there had been, time would be very tight; the maximum surface stay of any of the Apollo landers (Apollo 17) was shorter than the Earth-moon flight time; I don't know if the LM endurance was longer than that, but it's conceivable that the astronauts could survive long enough to await rescue.

The crew transfer might be a challenge: the rescue crew would have to be suited up (because the entire cabin depressurizes to open the hatch; there's no airlock) and the rescuees would have to be suited up and wearing the bulky portable life support pack. They'd have to transfer one at a time, discarding their PLSS after connecting to the cabin environmental system. I'm not certain it would be physically possible to get four suited crew inside. I believe the extra mass would not be a major problem; the LM ascent stage was intended to return with about a human's mass worth of moon rocks, and usually completed its ascent with 150kg or more propellant remaining in the tanks. If it was limited to a lower orbit than usual, the command module could come down to reach it.

The alternative would be to land the rescue ship with a single crew member; this would be hazardous, but likely possible. The LM guidance computer was capable of semi-autonomous landing, and they'd have time on the outbound trip to program the precise location of the disabled lander as a target site. Three people could definitely fit in the LM (as demonstrated by Apollo 13).

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    $\begingroup$ I don't believe the cabin environmental system did have connections for up to three or even four suited astronauts. Apollo 13 only demonstrated that three people without suits would fit in the LM. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    May 24, 2017 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ Air is not as good an insulator as vacuum. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ We have already discussed and concluded that a single crew member could fly the LM. Admittedly, that question is about ascent, whereas this would be about descent. Absent problems during the descent, though, I suspect the two situations would be similar. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 24, 2017 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinAnne In this scenario, the first crew still has a good CSM in lunar orbit; two rendezvous would be doable in order to get all the crew into their own ships. I think there was a proposal for a rescue version of the CM with room for another one or two crewmen in the lower equipment bay, but never developed. If my choices are certain death on the moon or laying across my buddies' laps for a 6G reentry, I'll take the chance... $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ From tragic Kerbel Space Program Experience. Never set the precise location of the stranded lander as your destination. That's how you get two stranded landers and have to mount another rescue mission. Set a point a few meters away! $\endgroup$
    – Scott
    May 24, 2017 at 22:50

There was no chance to get them back alive - no ready to launch rocket, no ready to launch spaceship, no lunar module capable to take 3 persons (or land automatically) - just nothing.

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    $\begingroup$ The LM could take three people for the short ascent flight, possibly even 4. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove - was it possible to leave command module without a commander and then dock to it? $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure. The ascent module was normally the "active" partner in the rendezvous (with the CM ready to take over as active if necessary. I don't know if the command module pilot was required to do something physical with the docking/access hatch to reset it after departure. Why? I'm assuming the first mission's CSM is still around, and we can do two rendezvous to get all the crews back to their respective CSMs instead of piling 4-5 people into one. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Collins, after the Apollo 11 LM departure: "now I have to do the tunnel bit again, closing hatches, installing drogue and probe, and disconnecting the electrical umbilical running into the LM." $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2017 at 18:44

I've heard about something, but im not sure of its validity because I wasnt paying attention to where I heard it. Someplace Ive read about some sort of handheld mini ascent stage. Pretty much, two stranded astronauts outside the lander grab on this thing and activate an engine to go to orbit. Pretty much a rocket stick with two handles. This may have been only in planning, im not sure, but astronauts would then need to survive on suit o2 until the CSM picks them up. Any confirmation or denial is welcome.

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    $\begingroup$ You're correct, there were plans for a Lunar Escape System: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_Escape_Systems $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    May 28, 2017 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ But these were for long-duration missions that were being considered as a possible extension of the Apollo programme. They weren't being considered for Apollo 11 or any of the missions that were flown, or even planned and then cancelled. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2017 at 17:25

At the time of Apollo 11, there weren't any systems in place for a surface rescue, but several possibilities were explored during the development of the Apollo program.

One of the more promising was the Gemini Lunar Rescue Spacecraft, which would be based on the older 2-man Gemini capsule.

Lunar rescue mockup Lunar rescue mockup

This would either land uncrewed near the planned landing location for the crew to escape in, or just wait for a rescue mission to be assembled. Alternatively it would act as the rescue craft, with additional seats for the stranded Apollo astronauts as well as its own crew.

Oddly, this was vehicle was planned to use two Apollo service modules as upper stages to boost it to the moon. I'm not sure why the SM was chosen though, since a large portion of its internal volume was devoted to life support equipment

Apollo SM as upper stages

  • $\begingroup$ SM was probably chosen because they had extant spares. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Sep 3, 2017 at 4:09

As others have said, no. There was nothing in place to allow a rescue mission in time to save a stranded crew. This was why the LEM had a separate ascent engine, tucked up in the ascent stage. No matter what happened during landing, it would be basically impossible to disable the ascent engine without killing the crew anyways.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually I think a major driver, if not the reason, for having a separate ascent stage was to save weight. Remember that the LM's mass budget was extremely tight. If you can spend a little extra mass during descent in order to have a considerably lighter craft during ascent (which is when you want said craft to carry, say, lunar material samples), that might very well make sense. The fact that you get an extra engine is a bonus in some situations, but I'm fairly sure that getting a stranded crew off the ground was not a primary driving reason for that choice. If so, make it reliable instead. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 28, 2017 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ The landing feet, empty tanks, stronger engine and prospecting gear were all dead weight for the ascent. The condition of the decent motor could have been compromised as well. The disposable lander base was far superior if no reuse was anticipated. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    May 28, 2017 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling You're right. I knew that the reason most of the mass was left behind was to save mass, but I didn't realize that a much smaller engine would be capable of takeoff because of that. I have read that having a backup was a significant factor, but what you're saying definitely makes sense. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2017 at 17:39

Basically, NO. That is why the LEM Ascent module engine was designed to be extremely simple: Propellants were pressurized by a single helium tank and a single valve. ( fewer points of failure ). Fuel and oxidizer were self-igniting. Once that valve opened, they were going up.

At least that is what I read years ago.


Dig this:

The Rescue Agreement was considered and negotiated by the Legal Subcommittee from 1962 to 1967. Consensus agreement was reached in the General Assembly in 1967 ( resolution 2345 (XXII)), and the Agreement entered into force in December 1968. The Agreement, elaborating on elements of articles 5 and 8 of the Outer Space Treaty, provides that States shall take all possible steps to rescue and assist astronauts in distress and promptly return them to the launching State, and that States shall, upon request, provide assistance to launching States in recovering space objects that return to Earth outside the territory of the Launching State.


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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, but the USA was the only state that could potentially launch a rescue mission at the time. Availability of a launcher was more of a factor than legal agreements. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    May 27, 2017 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ OK but how does this answer the question? $\endgroup$ May 28, 2017 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ Scoop or lose bro $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2019 at 16:55

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