Did the Apollo astronauts bring back germs from the Moon?
Fifty years ago, nobody knew if the Moon harboured deadly pathogens. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were forced to spend 21 days in quarantine just in case.
Isolation began as soon as the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Before leaving the spacecraft, they changed into ‘biological isolation garments’ fitted with masks. They were flown by helicopter to an aircraft carrier, with a converted silver Airstream trailer on board known as the Mobile Quarantine Facility.
The Apollo 11 crew, along with a doctor and a technician, spent 88 hours inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility while they were transported to Hawaii and then to Houston. Their final stop was the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at Johnson Space Centre. The astronauts had to walk from the trailer through an airtight plastic tunnel into the laboratory, which would be home for the next three weeks
Compared to the cramped conditions of the spacecraft and the trailer, the Lunar Receiving Laboratory must have seemed luxurious. In the multi-room complex, each astronaut had their own room. There was also a recreation room, shower, locker room, lounge, dining room and kitchen.
As well as the astronauts, the facility housed doctors, lab technicians, stewards, a photographer, and a public affairs officer. The lunar samples the astronauts collected were also brought to this facility. The lunar material was rigorously tested to ensure it didn’t contain anything that could be hazardous to life on Earth. It was even fed to cockroaches!
The food that the astronauts ate inside the Lunar Receiving Laboratory was of the highest standards. The medical staff had to make sure that any food consumed by the astronauts would not make them ill. This might give the impression that some unknown Moon bacteria had infected them instead.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were able to select their menus pre-flight. We are lucky enough to have the menu from the tenth day inside the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in the National Space Centre’s collection. The astronauts had eggs and bacon for breakfast. For lunch, a choice of cream of mushroom soup or chicken and dumplings, followed by butterscotch brownie or ice cream. In the evening they were treated to a three-course meal, consisting of French onion soup, pot roast of beef, with apple pie for dessert.
While the astronauts may have eaten well, they were less pleased with the experience as a whole. After being carefully watched by scientists and subjected to daily medical examinations, by the end of their time in quarantine the astronauts were more than ready to leave.
In his autobiography Buzz Aldrin said, “The unit was comfortable, but there was little to do and nowhere to go, so we got bored in a hurry.” After 21 days it was determined that the astronauts were free from lunar germs and they were finally able to go home and hug their families.
Despite all the precautions, Michael Collins pointed out a rather major flaw in the quarantine procedure. Speaking on the PBS documentary ‘Chasing the Moon’ Collins said:
“Suppose there were germs on the moon. There are germs on the moon, we come back, the command module is full of lunar germs. The command module lands in the Pacific Ocean, and what do they do? Open the hatch. You got to open the hatch! All the damn germs come out!”
Fortunately, an extra-terrestrial plague was not unleashed! No trace of lunar germs was ever detected, and we now know the Moon is completely devoid of life. After Apollo 14, NASA decided to get rid of the quarantine period.
About the author: Hannah Baker is the Assistant Curator at the National Space Centre