Cosmic Luck: NASA's Apollo 11 Lunar Quarantine Crashes
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When Apollo 11 astronauts traveled to the Moon in July 1969, NASA was concerned for their safety during the complex flight. The agency also worried about what the astronauts might bring back with them.

For years before Apollo 11, officials feared the moon harbored microorganisms. And if the lunar microbes survived the return trip and caused moon fever on Earth?

To manage this possibility, NASA planned to quarantine people, instruments, samples, and space vehicles that had come into contact with lunar material.

But in an article published this month in the science history journal Isis, Dagomar Degroot, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, demonstrates that these “planetary protection” efforts were insufficient, to a lesser degree. previously known.

“The quarantine protocol looked like a success,” Dr. Degroot concludes in the study, “only because it was unnecessary.”

Dr. Degroot’s archival work also shows that NASA officials knew that lunar germs could pose an (if unlikely) existential threat and that their lunar quarantine would probably not protect the Earth if such a threat existed. They overestimated their ability to neutralize this threat anyway.

This space-age narrative, according to Dr. Degroot’s article, is an example of the tendency of science projects to downplay existential risks, which are unlikely and difficult to manage, in favor of focusing on smaller problems. and more likely. It also offers useful lessons as NASA and other space agencies prepare to collect samples from Mars and other solar system worlds for study on Earth.

In the 1960s, no one knew if the moon harbored life. But scientists were concerned enough that the National Academy of Sciences held a high-level conference in 1964 to discuss moon-Earth contamination. “They agreed the risk was real and the consequences could be profound,” Dr Degroot said.

The scientists also agreed that quarantining anything returning from the moon was both necessary and futile: humans would likely fail to contain a microscopic threat. The best the earthlings could do was to slow the release of the microbes until the scientists developed a countermeasure.

Despite these findings, NASA publicly maintained that it could protect the planet. He spent tens of millions of dollars on a sophisticated quarantine facility, the Lunar Reception Laboratory. “But despite all this beautiful complexity, there were only fundamental errors,” said Dr Degroot.

NASA officials were well aware that the lab was not perfect. Dr. Degroot’s article details many of the inspection and test results that revealed glove boxes and sterilization autoclaves that cracked, leaked or flooded.

In the weeks following the Apollo 11 crew’s return, 24 workers were exposed to the lunar material that the facility’s infrastructure was supposed to protect them from; they had to be quarantined. The containment failures have been “largely hidden from the public”, Dr Degroot wrote.

Emergency procedures for the lab – like what to do in case of fire or medical issues – also involved breaking isolation.

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“It ended up being an example of planetary protection security theater,” said Jordan Bimm, a science historian at the University of Chicago who was not involved in Dr. Degroot’s research.

The return to Earth of the Apollo 11 astronauts also put the planet in danger. Their vehicle, for example, was designed to vent while descending, and the astronauts had to open their hatch in the ocean.

In a 1965 memo, a NASA official said the agency was morally obligated to prevent potential contamination, even if it meant changing the mission’s weight, cost or schedule. But four years later, upon returning to Earth, the spacecraft still vented and the capsule’s interior encountered the Pacific.

“If lunar organisms capable of reproducing in Earth’s ocean had been present, we would have been fried,” said John Rummel, who served two terms as NASA’s planetary protection officer.

The likelihood that such organisms have made to exist was very weak. But if they did, the consequences were enormous – and the Apollo program was basically accepting them on behalf of the planet.

This tendency to downplay existential risk — instead prioritizing more likely threats with lower consequences — shows up in areas like climate change, nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence, Dr Degroot said.

In the Apollo mission, officials weren’t just downplaying the risks; they weren’t transparent about them.

“Failure is part of learning,” Dr Bimm said of the inadequate quarantine.

Understanding what went wrong will be important as NASA prepares to bring back samples from Mars, a place far more likely than the moon to harbor life, in the 2030s.

NASA has learned a lot about planetary protection since Apollo, said Nick Benardini, the agency’s current head of planetary protection. He’s building shields from the get-go and running workshops to understand science gaps, and he’s already working on a Mars sample lab.

The agency also plans to be direct with the public. “Risk communication and communication as a whole is very important,” Dr Benardini said. After all, he noted, “what is at stake is the Earth’s biosphere.”

It’s hard to imagine the biosphere being threatened by alien organisms, but the chances are not zero. “Low-probability, high-consequence risks are really important,” Dr. Degroot said. “Mitigate them is one of the most important things governments can do.”

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