Apollo 11 Astronauts Were Quarantining Long Before Any of Us for Fear of a 'Moon Plague'
NASA isolated the Apollo 11 astronauts for weeks — here's what we can learn from their time in quarantine.
When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were picked up in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969 after returning from the moon, they were greeted like heroes. Then they were locked away for 21 days, even spending a few days in an iconic Airstream trailer.
Last summer was the 50th anniversary of NASA's groundbreaking Apollo 11 mission, which saw the first humans walk on the surface of the moon. However, the far lesser-known tale of why, where, and how the pioneering astronauts of Apollo 11 were kept in quarantine is a story for our times as we practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Related: More space travel and astronomy news
Apollo Astronauts Were Quarantined Amid Fears of a 'Moon Plague'
NASA feared a “moon plague.” That’s why Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were put into quarantine as soon as they arrived back on Earth. Did the moon host extraterrestrial microorganisms that were dangerous to humans? “There was lots of debate and fear” Judith Hayes, chief of NASA’s Biomedical Research and Environmental Sciences Division, told the Houston Chronicle. “There was a big public outcry, and people were concerned.”
Apollo 11 Was Decontaminated Upon Return to Earth
In response to the panic, immediately after splashdown of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia — about 950 miles southwest of Honolulu — rescue divers from US Navy recovery helicopters clad in biohazard suits scrubbed the hatch with iodine and threw BIG (Biological Isolation Garment) suits into the capsule for the crew to put on.
The first people to walk on the moon — and their spacecraft — were then sprayed with bleach and immediately flown by helicopter to an aircraft carrier, where they were marched straight into a mobile isolation unit.
You can go see Buzz Aldrin's BIG at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (and the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia capsule) when it reopens after its temporary closure.
Apollo 11 and the Airstream Trailer
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins then spent 88 hours in a modified 35 ft. aluminum Airstream trailer on the USS Hornet, which NASA called the Mobile Quarantine Facility. It was basic — the trailer was fitted with just six airplane seats, a small table, and some bunk beds. On splashdown day, President Nixon greeted the astronauts aboard the USS Hornet, as did the astronauts’ wives, and there was even a cake-cutting ceremony held outside the trailer’s window.
Apollo 11’s Quarantine in Texas
The Apollo 11 astronauts' extended quarantine wasn’t over yet. After the USS Hornet docked in Hawaii on July 27, 1969, the entire Mobile Quarantine Facility — still containing the astronauts — was flown to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas and put straight into what NASA called the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL). They spent 15 more days in the LRL behind an airlock, with ultraviolet light to kill any exotic bacteria and microbes. Everyone working in the LRL had to shower and be disinfected at the end of their working day, and they agreed to be indefinitely quarantined themselves if moon pathogens escaped.
Eventually, the astronauts were cleared by NASA’s surgeon and, on August 10, 1969, they filed past reporters and were driven home to their families for a couple of days off.
That ended almost a month of quarantine. How did they cope?
Coping With Long Periods Alone
“The unit was comfortable, but there was little to do and nowhere to go, so we got bored in a hurry,” said Buzz Aldrin in No Dream Is Too High. Although they ate well, the astronauts had little to do other than play table tennis, use a small gym, undergo daily medical examinations, and have lengthy debriefs from NASA in a conference room divided by glass. Meanwhile, Neil Armstrong spent some time playing the ukulele. He also celebrated his 39th birthday in quarantine.
There Was No ‘Moon Plague’
Fears of an extra-terrestrial “moon plague” were unfounded, and quarantine was abandoned for future missions, but astronauts heading to the International Space Station are still put into quarantine before launch to avoid taking germs into orbit. So if NASA sends astronauts to Mars or if Elon Musk and SpaceX ever try to colonize Mars, there will be rules to protect not just Earth, but the entire solar system from biological contamination.