As a self-professed space nerd and proud member of the commander James Lovell fan club, I am always excited to celebrate the incredible feat that was bringing the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely after an onboard explosion during their mission to the Moon. It’s evidence that even in the most trying of times, we really can achieve the impossible.
What would’ve happened, though, if the heroic rescue mission had failed?
For 30 years, most people had accepted the conclusion that if NASA hadn’t saved the three imperiled astronauts — commander James Lovell, lunar module pilot Fred Haise, and command module pilot John Swigert — they would’ve orbited the Earth… forever. However, 20 years ago, a team of engineers from AGI and Space Exploration Engineering (SEE) had the moxie (and the software) to suggest a different end to that “what if?” story.
Using Systems Tool Kit (STK) and its Astrogator module — the orbit maneuvering tool that AGI and SEE created together — the team determined that had Apollo 13’s rescue mission failed, the spacecraft would have been thrown into a fatal orbit. Five weeks after the explosion, it would have tumbled into Earth’s atmosphere. Though neither alternative (and very grim) endings actually happened, AGI wanted to solve this mystery with key NASA personnel. Eventually, retrofire officer Chuck Dietrich, who was responsible for bringing the Apollo 13 astronauts home, used data from the actual mission to confirm that the Astrogator simulation was correct.
Revisiting Apollo 13 in STK
Of course, we all know that NASA's amazing work resulted in a happy ending for Apollo 13. I'm personally very excited to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary with a bunch of other space nerds. Join AGI and SEE for our webinar commemorating the anniversary. We’ll discuss our recreation of the mission with STK Astrogator, the astonishing alternative conclusion that we discovered, and how our team worked with NASA to resolve the discrepancy in the data. Register now!