40 years ago today Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, completing its historical mission.
Time to celebrate, right?
Out of fear of astronauts bringing “unheard-of” diseases back to Earth, US public authorities imposed a 21-day quarantine on all returning astronauts. They were confined to the “Lunar Receiving Laboratory” in Houston that featured, amongst other novelties, a glass wall so the astronauts could see family members.
From Flight’s archive:
So that there can be no possibility of US astronauts returning o m the Moon bringing with them unheard-of diseases which might spread disastrously through mankind, the astronauts spend their first 18 days back on Earth in a hermetically led, super-sterile building called the Lunar Receiving aboratory (see photograph in Flight for December 14, page 1010 ) at the Manned Spacecraft Centre, Houston, Texas. This building is so designed that no single germ can escape once Apollo astronauts have been sealed inside.
US public health authorities have imposed a 21-day quarantine on astronauts returning from Moon flights, and a special group of doctors, biologists and agricultural experts known as the Inter-agency Back-up Committee on Contamination has been set up to work out foolproof measures to prevent mishap from occurring.
The quarantine period will not be as arduous for the astronauts as it sounds, for the Lunar Receiving Laboratory is equipped to give them all the comforts of a luxurious setting; in one wall is a thick plate-glass window through which astronauts will be able to talk to their wives and children. But every molecule of air leaving the white three-storey bulilding will first be incinerated and passed through ultra-fine filters. All other waste will be stored in leakproof containers for before being strongly disinfected then burned.
Dr Walter Kemmerer, chief of MSC’s Biochemical Special-Services Branch, says that “the probability of life existing on the lunar surface is extremely small. The environment there, the temperature, the absence of free water, the radiation–all of these things make us believe that life is unlikely to exist on Moon.
“But we cannot definitely or with absolute certainty say that does not. So we must take precautions.”