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This is a bit of a morbid question, but every source I have checked makes it seem like the moment Apollo 13 had their accident and everyone understood the gravity of the situation, everyone was in agreement that the astronauts had to return to Earth alive no matter the cost. Noone talked about continuing the mission and having them die on the Moon, or abandoning the mission and letting them die in space.

Obviously such a decision would have been extremely controversial and might have even meant the end of manned space flight in the years after, but was it ever considered as an option to just let the astronauts die and continue on? Or is that a thought that would never even be uttered in the company culture NASA had at the time (and still has?)?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Apr 3 at 19:33
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Noone talked about continuing the mission and having them die on the Moon, or abandoning the mission and letting them die in space.

There had already been two successful moon landings at this point, and further landings planned and scheduled. There was no particular reason that this mission had to land, and the culture of NASA (at the time) was such that any single mission wasn't worth taking excessive risks, let alone mathematically-certain death.

Even on the politically critical first landing, Apollo 11, no one would have considered certain death for the crew to be worth landing; according to Deke Slayton's autobiography, NASA administrator Tom Paine explicitly told Neil Armstrong that if the mission had to be aborted for safety reasons, he would recycle the same crew for the next mission, the message being "don't do something stupid just to be the first".

It also might not have been possible to land on the moon after the accident; the service module's engine was likely damaged, and the LM didn't have enough fuel to both insert into lunar orbit and descend to the lunar surface.

As for letting them die in space without making any attempt to save them, this would be even more pointless. Deaths of astronauts in space would risk the remainder of the program being cancelled.

The extra measures taken to bring the Apollo 13 crew home safely only cost, I would estimate, a couple of days worth of overtime pay for a couple of hundred staffers (if even that; the mission as a whole, and thus the costs of monitoring the mission, was shortened by a couple of days) -- not pocket change, but quite a small investment relative to the total scale of the project. In exchange they saved not only three lives, but they probably saved at least two of the remaining four landing missions from being cancelled.

According to Gene Krantz, the famous "failure is not an option" line from the film Apollo 13 was, while not a verbatim quote, reflective of the attitude of the staff in Mission Control:

The script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me ... One of their questions was "Weren't there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?" My answer was "No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution."

I can't say that no one working for NASA ever considered shrugging their shoulders and saying "oh well, guess they'll die", but the idea of it is completely nonsensical to me. With three men risking their lives for the mission, working long hours for four days or so to try and save them doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

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    $\begingroup$ Really this is the perfect answer. There's just very simply no reason, at all, to have "desperately" turned it in to a suicide mission. Why? It was just one, unimportant, mission in a multiple mission. We went to the moon many times; it would have been no big deal if one or two of the missions had been aborted. Nothing at all critical was at stake, it was just a science / political boondoggle project. It wasn't like that Bruce Willis movie where saving the Earth! depended on the space mission! It was a basically totally unimportant science/political mission. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Mar 22 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the ominous tone of letting them die in space is really the correct one. If I were in the position of Lovell or Haise I would probably be asking if I could continue the mission and walk on the moon. You can be famous as the astronaut who didn't make it, or you can be a sort of real-life Dave Bowman astro-martyr. To be fair, the Apollo 13 crew are the most famous astronauts after Armstrong/Aldrin, and they have a better story, and they got to see the moon pretty close in the window... $\endgroup$ – qel Mar 22 at 21:54
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The purpose of the Apollo missions wasn't to collect rocks. It was recover from the humiliation of being beaten to space by the Soviets. While there was some scientific value, it overwhelmingly was a publicity stunt, and saving the crew would serve that purpose, while letting them die would not (at least, not if it were known that a deliberate choice was made; a cynical person might say that grief over losing them might have brought the country together).

And it's not like there would be much value in letting them die. As Oscar Lanzi mentions in a comment, them going to the moon would be of little use, as they would then still have to send another mission to get the rocks. There would be little savings in "abandoning" the mission. Most of the resources used on Earth were "overhead" that was already paid for.

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure I agree here. If the Apollo program, as a whole, were nothing but "a publicity stunt", it seems to me that Apollo would have ended upon Apollo 11's successful completion. "We were first to the moon! See? 'Murica!" $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Mar 20 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ But the publicity stunt was the whole program; not just to be first (which could have been a fluke) but to rub the Soviet's noses in it over and over again, for months and months, and take psychological "ownership" of the moon for the US. And in fact, the program eventually was cut shorter than envisioned: when it was decided that the propaganda and morale goals had been reached, they decided 18 would be the last, showing that the very real scientific goals of the further planned missions were expendable, relative to public perception of value. $\endgroup$ – CCTO Mar 20 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ “While there was some scientific value” – well, there was a massive amount of scientific value! Though that may have not been the most important aspect to the politicians who financed the program, I daresay it was important to most of the people in NASA itself. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Mar 20 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell to some extent, it did. Inertia, budget cycles, and plans laid down by people who basically just wanted to do something cool with the resources they were given, gave us the missions through 17, but the wind-down was already in progress long before. The cancellations started about the time Apollo 12 landed, and a follow-on production run of the Saturn V was considered and rejected before 11 even launched. $\endgroup$ – hobbs Mar 20 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @leftaroundabout value is in the eye of the beholder. Plenty of people think there's no value at all in space exploration or even in science generally. Ironically, those people generally use advanced technology to promote their viewpoints. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Mar 20 at 22:09
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I didn't find in the summary of the Appollo 13 operations report (https://history.nasa.gov/alsj/a13/A13_MissionOpReport.pdf) any mention of someone, at any time, seriously proposing to let the crew die in space.

The reasons for it have already been thoroughly discussed here, I'm just adding to the fact.

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  • $\begingroup$ Writing a report after the successful saving the Apollo 13 crew, who would write anything about negative thoughts of letting them die in space? It is no proof that there were no such thoughts. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Mar 22 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ You're right, but still, it's an internal document (the language used domake it unavailable for most public), and so the idea could have been mentionned, but not thoroughly examined, of course, as you said $\endgroup$ – Axel B Mar 25 at 11:47
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I think you need to be very clear what 'cost' means.

The direct financial cost of rescuing the Apollo 13 astronauts was relatively tiny: no part of the spacecraft was being lost as a result that would not already have been lost, there was no expensive resupply or rescue mission, so it comes down to the cost of paying people on the ground to work some overtime. That's tiny compared to the cost of a mission.

A possible indirect cost is that one mission didn't get to go to the Moon: perhaps they could have landed in the knowledge that it could never come home? No, they couldn't: after the accident they weren't going there whatever they did. The CSM was going to kill them before they got to the point where they could land, so their only option was to use the LEM to stay alive, at which point they could not go to the Moon.

So the remaining options were let them die in space while everyone watched, or try to bring them home, with the cost of the latter option being the overtime payment, which is relatively minute.

And a final consideration is: if they had let the crew die in space to avoid the overtime cost, what were their chances of getting anyone else to fly a mission? I'd guess 'very small indeed': if they had done that the programme was probably dead.

Note that the above is an attempt to do a cold-blooded summary of the options & their consequences: I would be really surprised if anyone at NASA did that, the ethos of the organisation was, I am sure, 'we get them home alive, if we possibly can'.

I think it's worth quoting Gene Krantz here:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it.

We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, "Dammit, stop!"

I don't know what Thompson's committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: "Tough and Competent." Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write "Tough and Competent" on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

– Gene Krantz, address to his branch and flight control team on the Monday morning following the Apollo 1 disaster, 30 January 1967

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It’s not a thought that would be voiced at NASA.

But frankly, even disregarding the culture at NASA, it’s not a thought that would be given serious consideration or even voiced anywhere.

Because there is either a solution that can be found in time and their lives can be saved or there isn’t. While an individual might be holding a grudge and wishing one or even all of them dead, institutionally the only reason not to want to save them would be because it was deemed too expensive to do so. And to make that judgement without first even attempting to find a solution? “We have 3 employees that are going to die, if we worked hard, we might be able to figure out a way to save them, but that might cost too much. Go home”.

The only way that thought gets voiced is if the astronauts are considered not just expendable but consumables.

After the solution and it’s cost was found, it might have been a different story, except that the only expense was basically a bit of overtime at most (possibly not much of that, as many of them wouldn’t be eligible for overtime). It’s not like they had to launch a separate mission or expend an extra rocket.

The idea that they would have at anytime just said, nope, let’s not bother boggles the imagination.

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