07 August 2015

What If an Apollo Lunar Module Ran Low on Fuel and Aborted its Moon Landing? (1966)

"The Eagle has wings!" The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle shortly after separating from Apollo 11 Command and Service Module Columbia in lunar orbit, 20 July 1969. Image credit: NASA
At 3:08 p.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on 20 July 1969, out of contact with Earth over the Farside hemisphere of the moon, the computer that guided the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle opened valves in its descent propulsion system, causing nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer and aerozine 50 fuel to come together in its descent stage rocket engine. The propellants were hypergolic, meaning that they ignited on contact with each other.

The descent engine fired for a little more than 12 minutes. At the beginning of the burn, Eagle, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin were in a 54-by-66-nautical-mile lunar orbit. At the end of the burn, the 16.5-ton, 23-foot-tall lunar lander and its occupants were in an elliptical orbit with an apoapsis (low point) 50,000 feet above the moon's Earth-facing Nearside hemisphere.

Apollo 11's target landing site was known officially as Site 2. Selected because it was flat and equatorial, Site 2 was a 10-mile-long east-west-trending ellipse on the moon's Sea of Tranquility centered at 0° 42' 50" north latitude, 23° 42' 28" east longitude. Eagle descended to 50,000 feet about 260 nautical miles and 12 minutes of flight time east of Site 2, at which point the LM's computer ignited its descent engine again to begin braking and final descent.

As the LM dropped below 7000 feet, its computer fired attitude control thrusters to tip it slowly upright so that it pointed its descent engine and footpads at the moon. This maneuver also aimed Eagle's twin triangular windows forward so Armstrong and Aldrin could see Site 2 up close for the first time.

The astronauts immediately realized that they had a problem. They should have been above the eastern edge of the Site 2 ellipse, about five miles from their target landing point at the center of the ellipse. Instead, they had already flown past the center of their target ellipse and were descending toward its northwestern edge.

Apollo 11's flight plan called for Armstrong to let the computer do the flying until Eagle was about 500 feet above the moon and 2000 feet east of the target touchdown point. He would then take manual control and lower Eagle almost vertically to the surface. The veteran civilian test-pilot quickly realized, however, that Eagle's computer was steering it toward a boulder-strewn impact crater the size of an American football field. This was later identified as West Crater.

His heart rate leaping from 77 to 156 beats per minute, Armstrong assumed manual control early. Gripping his hand controller, he leveled Eagle's descent, then scooted the LM almost horizontally across the black lunar sky at an altitude of several hundred feet. While Aldrin read off descent and translation rates, Eagle's computer flashed erroneous alarms and Capcom Charles Duke in Houston warned that Eagle was running low on propellants. Armstrong flew past West Crater and an adjacent smaller crater, then lowered to a safe touchdown just inside the Site 2 ellipse. At 4:18 p.m. EDT, he radioed his immortal words to hundreds of millions of people: "Houston, Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed."

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle on the moon at Tranquility Base. Note lunar dirt stirred up by astronaut activities on the surface. Image credit: NASA
Armstrong and Aldrin landed at 0° 41' 15" north, 23° 26' east, roughly four miles west and about three-quarters of a mile north of their planned touchdown point. Mission Control estimated that Eagle's descent stage tanks contained only enough propellants for about 25 seconds of flight when the descent stage engine was shut off at Tranquility Base. After the flight, more detailed analysis yielded an estimate of 45 seconds, demonstrating that the system for measuring available propellants in real time left much to be desired.

Mission rules called for an abort if propellants for fewer than 20 seconds of flight remained in the descent stage propellant tanks. What if, as Armstrong anxiously sought a safe place to land, flight controllers on Earth had mistakenly estimated an even slimmer propellant margin? They might then have done as mission rules dictated and called on Armstrong to abort the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

In June 1966, Charles Teixeira, with the Engineering and Development Directorate at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, completed an Apollo Program Working Paper on the hazards of an abort during the 45-second period spanning from 65 to 20 seconds before planned touchdown. He assumed that the LM would be no more than 338 feet above the moon 65 seconds before planned touchdown and about 100 feet high 20 seconds before planned touchdown.

If an abort were initiated, the LM's descent stage engine would shut down. Nearly simultaneously, four explosive bolts linking the descent stage with the ascent stage would fire. A fifth pyrotechnic device would drive a guillotine that would cut the wiring umbilical linking the two stages. The ascent stage engine would then ignite to propel the astronauts toward lunar orbit. The abandoned descent stage, meanwhile, would fall to the lunar surface.

From abort initiation to ascent stage ignition, the abort procedure - which, apart from occurring at altitude, would duplicate the normal LM ascent stage launch procedure - would last from two to four seconds. During that time, the ascent stage would follow the same path as the descent stage; that is, it would fall toward the moon.

Teixeira assumed that, following an abort during the 45-second period from 65 seconds to 20 seconds before planned touchdown, the four-legged descent stage would strike the moon with enough force to rupture its propellant tanks, while an abort within 20 seconds of planned touchdown - when the descent stage was at or below 100 feet - would leave the descent stage tanks intact.

If the tanks ruptured, either of two events might occur. The nitrogen tetroxide and aerozine 50 they spilled might boil and evaporate rapidly in the lunar vacuum. Evaporation would cool, then freeze, the propellants, so they would remain safely separated. Alternately, the propellants would come together. This might occur, Teixeira wrote, if after impact enough of the descent stage structure remained intact around the ruptured tanks to contain the propellants as they boiled.

Propellant mixing would cause an explosion that would drive gases and fragments of the descent stage outward at several thousand feet per second. Teixeira estimated that the blast front would envelope the LM ascent stage less than one-tenth of a second after the explosion.

The extent of the damage this might cause depended mainly on how long the abort procedure would last; that is, how quickly the ascent engine could ignite. The faster the ascent engine ignited, the farther away the astronauts would be when the descent stage impacted and exploded.

For a two-second abort procedure, gas pressure from the explosion would damage the ascent stage if the abort began between 32.6 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown. If the two-second abort began between 44 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown, then the ascent stage stood a greater than 20% chance of being struck by a descent stage fragment.

For a four-second abort procedure, gas pressure from the explosion would damage the ascent stage if the abort began between 53.7 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown. The ascent stage would stand a greater than 20% chance of being struck by a descent stage fragment if the four-second abort began between 65 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown; that is, throughout the period Teixeira considered.

After the Landing: The ascent stage of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle as viewed from the Apollo 11 Command and Service Module Columbia during rendezvous in lunar orbit. Image credit: NASA
Teixeira called the "critical time spans" during which damage would be likely to occur "rather short." He acknowledged that the risk of a descent stage explosion during a near-surface abort might not be great enough to justify "elaborate remedial action" - for example, a major redesign of the LM descent stage.

He recommended, however, that a descent stage propellant dump "at as high a rate as safely possible" become a part of the standard LM landing abort procedure. After due consideration, NASA elected not to follow his advice. Had Armstrong and Aldrin been forced to abort the Apollo 11 landing while above 100 feet of altitude, Teixeira's recommendation might have come back to haunt the U.S. civilian space agency.


Hazards Associated with a LEM Abort Near the Lunar Surface, NASA Program Apollo Working Paper No. 1203, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, 24 June 1966

Apollo 11 Mission Report, NASA SP-238, Mission Evaluation Team, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, 1971

Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA SP-4205, The NASA History Series, C. Brooks, J. Grimwood, and L. Swenson, NASA, 1979, pp. 343-344

More Information

What If an Apollo Saturn Rocket Exploded on the Launch Pad? (1965)

What If Apollo Astronauts Became Marooned in Lunar Orbit? (1968)


  1. Armstrong wasn't a veteran civilian, he flew combats in Korea, he was a member of MISS and flew the X-15. He was just a civilian for public relationships in 1969.

    And he did not abort the Apollo 11 lunar landing because of that experience, also came from the LLRV/LLTV. He did the right stuff, but no civilian test-pilots would behave like this today.

    1. Neil Armstrong began his college education at Purdue University in 1947 through a tuition for service program with the Navy. In 1949, after two years of study it was time for him to fulfill his obligation with three years of service. In 1952, with his tour of duty satisfied he returned to Purdue to finish his education.though he maintained his status as a Naval Reservist. Armstrong joined NACA in 1955 as a test pilot and aeronautical engineer where he worked on several projects including the X-15. In 1958, he was selected for the USAF Man In Space Soonest program and in 1960 he was selected for the USAF X-20 Dyna-Soar project. Being selected for these projects did not in anyway affect his status with NASA as evident by the fact that he didn't fly the X-15 until 1960. At the end of 1960 Neil Armstrong resigned his commision, thus ending his relationship with the U.S. Navy. Your assertion that he was a "civilian for public relationships (sic) in 1969" is patently false. In 1962 he was selected along with eight other applicants for NASA's Astronaut Corps, the New Nine as some would call them.

      Neil Armstrong was a great many things: husband, father, engineer, fighter pilot, veteran, research test pilot, astronaut. But on the day he landed on the moon he was a civilian.

  2. "Veteran" in this case means "long-time, experienced." Ex-military people are also called veterans. The first is an adjective, the second a noun.

    Neil Armstrong was a veteran, but he was a civilian at the time he landed on the moon. That, however, misses the point. I used the word as an adjective. He was a veteran test-pilot, meaning that he had plenty of experience as a test-pilot. And much of his test-pilot experience was gained while he was a civilian - he was a NASA employee at the time he flew the X-15.



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