Why NASA quarantined the Apollo 11 astronauts


“Zero, all engines running. We have a liftoff.
One small step for man…” Alright, I guess we should just say what’s
going on. We thought it’d be a good time to talk about
a part of the Apollo 11 mission that often gets overlooked, which was the quarantine:
including time in a refitted Airstream trailer and a lab.
You’re gonna get to see some of the engineering that NASA’s really famous for, but applied
to a totally different problem, which is: how do you keep a lunar plague from hitting
the Earth? Yeah.
We’ve done a few other episodes of this where one of us knows something, the other
doesn’t. This time, we’ve all just been cramming on quarantine facts about this Apollo
11 quarantine. And seeing so many men in, like, short sleeve
shirts. And we’re gonna talk to Amy Teitel from
Vintage Space, a channel that Phil and I both really like.
So yeah, this is the quarantine edition of History Club. Yay.
I wanted to talk about the stuff before we get with Amy though, like about the period
of the 20th century and vaccinations in general. The moon landing is happening in July of 1969.
It was kind of an optimistic time in the middle of the 20th century: measles, mumps, polio,
these had all been beaten back and, like, we felt pretty good about being able to contain
potential diseases. Even though there’s an extremely low probability
that anything contaminated is on the moon, if there was even a chance that they could
bring something back, it would be truly novel and potentially devastating to life on Earth.
Alright, can you see that? Yeah.
Oh wait, this is the quote that I love. “They will be treated not as heroes, but as bearers
of the most virulent devastating plague the world has ever known.” I love that. And
plague is spelled wrong. This is how Venom in Spiderman got to Earth.
So…this is important stuff. This is an idea that we’ve become very familiar with now,
because we have the coronavirus is so dangerous is because no human’s ever had it before.
And if there were an alien lunar plague, no human had ever had it before, so it’s kind
of the same threat. Which is why they took no chances and put
them in quarantine. It’s a very blunt approach, but it’s really
interesting that that was kind of like, this is our surest bet.
They’ve developed the need for this quarantine, and then they’ve got this problem of how
to logistically make it happen, to get these astronauts from the middle of the ocean all
the way to the lunar receiving lab in Houston. With no exposure to Earth’s environment
at all. Yes. In theory.
In theory. Pete will be in the background.
Hey Pete. Hi Pete, nice to meet you.
He says “meow.” I gave him some catnip so he’s a little bit stoned right now, it’s
pretty fun. Oh good.
And so this first clip that I have is…let me load it up.
So what they’re practicing is, they want to get the astronauts out of the command module
and onto a helicopter basically, with as little contamination as possible to try to preserve
this quarantine. It makes sense that they had to train to do
this, but it’s still crazy to think about it, that like you’re going through this
excitement of being about to go to the moon and you’re training for how you’re gonna
get into your quarantine suit. But it does make sense, I mean, how bad would
it be if the mission went off beautifully, everything was great, rah rah America landing
on the moon, and then they get back and they forget to put on the suit right and, like,
someone falls in the ocean and then everyone gets sick. Like, womp womp, that’d be a
big damper. So, I kinda get it. It’s actually from when they were training
with the B.I.G. suits, or Big suits. And that’s the Biological Isolation Garment,
right? Yeah.
I’ve only read it, so I don’t know how it was pronounced in conversation.
It’d be way too cumbersome to not just say Big Suit.
I know right, especially NASA the land of the acronym.
So here they’re all just kinda waiting to go through the training.
I do love how much all this footage shows, like, being an astronaut is a lot of sitting
and listening quietly. Yeah.
Yeah. A lot of meetings.
It looks like they brought it down upside down too.
Yeah, they dumped it upside down and then inflated the balloons to flip it.
And that flotation collar is exactly what it sounds like, it adds buoyancy and gives
them a platform to step out of. Because again, we learned from Gus Grissom in 1961, right,
when his hatch blew early, and the capsule filled with water and sunk. You kinda need
to give some kind of barrier from the water rushing into this capsule, otherwise, again,
you end on a very poor note after a great mission.
There’s a very large issue that the whole quarantine thing in this move of, like, you
just opened the capsule. Quarantine for Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 as
well started the moment they closed the hatch after the lunar EVA. The moonwalk. So everything
that had been exposed was sealed up, and of course on the way back, you’re not opening
the capsule at all, there’s nothing to introduce anything new, no one’s interacting with
it, so you’ve got this thing that’s been sealed for like four days and you just opened
up the air and then reseal it. It’s a bit of a weak link in the chain there, but there
was no better option. They also, they sprayed them down, right,
they threw the suits in, put them on, and then sprayed them with chemicals.
And so here that’s them, they’ve gotten out, they’re wearing the B.I.G. suits, and
this is just a practice run but this is pretty much how it happened. And so then the next
stage of their journey is, they’re in their B.I.G. suits and they make it onto the USS
Hornet, which is a big aircraft carrier. And their goal is to enter the Mobile Quarantine
Facility, so that is the next video that I have lined up here.
That’s why up here it says Hornet + 3 on the Mobile Quarantine Facility because the
astronauts are the additional three who are on the Hornet.
Oh wait, I think this is the clip when they walk out in their suits, the guy just in a
tie sprays it down after. I love that. And so the people who went in there, it was
a doctor, William Carpentier, and John Hiarasaki who was the project engineer basically, and
so those two guys are going inside and hanging out with these astronauts for the entire period
the Mobile Quarantine Facility is traveling. According to this, all of the stuff that was
not human would be flown directly to the Lunar Receiving Lab. You know, the rocks were in
these rock boxes that were very protected and also sterile. You want to get that there
as quickly as possible so that can be flown in a small plane and flown from the carrier
deck. The ship meanwhile has to go to a base, it has to dock somewhere, at which point the
MQF will be mobile (as it’s named). This very fancily named thing was just a converted
Airstream trailer, so that gives you a sense of how not big it was.
Because they had to put it on a plane and a ship and drive it around.
The bottom of this plane opens and then you just kind of roll this thing in and then you
fly it to Houston. Neil Armstrong played ukulele a bit, and there’s
a great picture of him. And I think it’s through the glass in that window that Nixon
was talking to them through, because it’s got this ghostly artifact that gives it this
ethereal feel almost, like he’s just in this little suit lowkey strumming the ukulele.
About the MQF, they also adjusted the air pressure right, so it’d be lower pressure
inside, so if there was a leak, air would go in and not out.
And they’ve got these souped up bars on the bottom, right — they ditched the wheels
and they had to reinforce it structurally. Oh and they had a microwave — which is very
new in 1969, that’s like a high tech innovation. Nice. The Mini-Fridge. This is looking a bit
like a college dorm room right now. Exactly.
They’re landing at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory or LRL, which is in Houston, it was specially
built near what is now the Johnson Space Center that was like one of the most state of the
art quarantineable facilities. Even the staff that went in had to go through UV showers
and you could not have any medical thing — you could not be pregnant to work in there — everything
was super sterile. Anyone that was interacting with the crew had to be very clean and healthy
to make sure that the crew did not get sick but also that they did not get you sick.
Is this the press room? Right here? Where they’re celebrating his birthday?
I think that’s the press room. So you can see it looks like on the other side of the
wall are a bunch of women, so probably the wives and family. So they can be there and
celebrate but they can’t actually be in the same space. But on this side of the glass,
where we are watching from is the clean facility, and this is where they are celebrating Neil
Armstrong’s 39th birthday, because he was still in quarantine when that happened.
This is so cute, I’ve never actually seen this footage of them making the cake, I’ve
seen him cutting and serving the cake — this is awesome.
If there was found to be something potentially bad in one of the samples or the crew got
sick and there was some containment breach of the sick party, everyone who worked in
the LRL signed a waiver saying they agreed that if they were exposed to a contaminant,
they would quarantine themselves for an indefinite period afterwards as directed by NASA.
There’s a lot in this — in the medical offices, there’s a lot of beds. There’s
a lot of tables and things in the offices and living space. That’s a lot of people
and the second diagram shows you that’s a third of the area of the entire LRL. That’s
a big space for a lot of people to live and work.
In addition to the quarantine of the astronauts, what kind of experiments are going on in the
other half of the Lunar Receiving Lab? A lot of the experiments they were doing were
looking at the rocks, classifying the rocks, bio-classifying if need be to figure out exactly
what they had gotten and figure out what’s going to happen with these samples next. I
think Apollo 11 didn’t bring back too too much because they only did one short EVA — later
missions brought back a lot more. And so, I found some pretty crazy tables of
some of the tests that they did on the biological elements.
I’m gonna tell you all this, one of the experiments they did was they ground up some
moon rocks, made a formula out of it and injected it into a Japanese Quail.
What? Why? Why?
Just to see if it made the bird sick. Like, why? Were they gonna do that to humans?
Did they think moon rock dust was gonna be the new street drug?
Right. All the kids are on moon dust. I think that’s pretty much what they did
to the mice too…um…. They spend their time in the Lunar Receiving
Lab, they don’t have a moon plague — —They don’t die —
— they don’t have a lunar plague. They don’t have a moon bug. They get out, they
go on this world tour, everything’s fine. Hip hip hooray.
Is there anything about the Apollo 11 quarantine, either procedurally or the context of how
people were feeling about it at the time that we didn’t talk about?
Um. How much NASA learned over its relatively
short existence before Apollo 11’s launch to anticipate the worst and hope for the best.
Anticipating the crew dying at launch, anticipating the crew dying, I mean there were abort procedures
for every mission stage, there were speeches for if they died on the moon, down to what
do we do if they pick up something deadly in space. I think it really speaks to how
many people have to be involved to predict or prepare for something like this. It speaks
to how well NASA really thought outside the box, especially after the Apollo 1 fire to
anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong and put everything in place to mitigate
that, so that if the worst happened they would at least be the best prepared. The LRL was
built purposely for bringing them back from the moon. It was not just like “Let’s
outfit this building,” it was a custom facility for this need. And it’s a lot of planning
and a lot of preparation. And a lot of acknowledging just how bad things could be to hopefully
never have to get there. People find you on YouTube and you’ve also
released a book. What is that about? It’s called Fighting for Space, I always
have to read my own subtitle, two pilots and their historic battle for female space flight,
and it’s effectively a dual biography of two pilots who were navigating being professional
fliers at a time when it was not common for women to be professional fliers while America
was making the transition from aviation to spaceflight and what that meant for the women
who wanted to be involved.

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