What If Apollo 13 Failed to Return Home? New Video Tells All

A new video that uses special software to analyze data from the fated Apollo 13 flight reveals a new story about the destiny that would have befallen the Apollo 13 astronauts had they not pulled off their extraordinary safe return to Earth.

The video, narrated by space writer Andrew Chaikin, marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 flight, in which mission commander Jim Lovell and his crew were forced to abort their mission to the moon after an oxygen tank exploded 200,000 miles (approximately 322,000 kilometers) from Earth.

"Apollo 13 is a reminder to all of us what people can accomplish when they work together and refuse to fail," Chaikin said in the video.

Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI), a company that provides software for advanced space, defense and intelligence applications, used Satellite Tool Kit (STK) software to analyze data from the Apollo flight. [Apollo moon mission photos.]

Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. The oxygen tank exploded on April 13.

AGI used key moments from the mission to create a simulation of what might have happened if the astronauts had failed to get back on a proper course to Earth.

Chaikin, author of "A Man on the Moon" (Penguin, 1998) explains how AGI's simulation reveals a different outcome from the one that has, until now, been commonly accepted.

Previously, it was thought that if the Apollo 13 lunar module missed Earth, the astronauts would eventually die when their oxygen supply ran out, and the module would simply drift billions of miles through space.

But, AGI's study reveals a very different outcome.

As expected, the lunar module would miss Earth, but by approximately 2,500 miles (4,023 km) - much closer than the commonly accepted 40,000 miles (about 64,000 km) that had been predicted before.

The astronauts would enter a new orbit that stretched 350,000 miles (approximately 563,000 km) into space before falling back toward Earth again. The spacecraft would then pass approximately 30,000 miles (48,000 km) from the moon, which would have been enough for the moon's gravity to change the lunar landing craft's orbit.

"Now, when Apollo 13 heads back toward Earth, it's on a collision course," Chaikin explained in the video.

The simulation determined that on May 20, 1970, five weeks after the initial oxygen tank explosion, Apollo 13 would plunge into the Earth's atmosphere at an angle that would cause the module to incinerate.

These findings were confirmed by Apollo 13 flight controller Chuck Dietrich, who used data from the flight 30 years ago to corroborate the outcome of the simulation.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former Space.com staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.