Splendid Isolation

When the first astronauts to walk on the Moon returned from their July 1969 lunar expedition, they were confined to quarters

It has been 35 years since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, just before 11 p.m. E.D.T. on July 20, 1969—an astounding feat to those of us who witnessed it on the flickering screens of black-and-white televisions. These days, it is robots, faithful machines that leave the Earth, travel to other worlds and do not return, who take the giant leaps for mankind. So one must strain a bit to recall the undercurrent of fear that ran through the celebration of Apollo 11's astonishing triumph. Among other fears, scientists worried that the astronauts might return to Earth bearing unwanted passengers—deadly lunar microbes against which humans would have no defense. If this concern, in hindsight, appears quaint—like ancient mariners fretting about falling off the edge of the Earth—the prospect of catastrophic contamination was taken altogether seriously at the time.

In 1963, the National Academy of Sciences, anxious to guard against invisible invaders, called for a way to isolate the Apollo astronauts upon their return from a series of planned Moon landings. Accordingly, NASA developed the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), essentially a highly modified, wheelless, 35-foot vacation trailer equipped with elaborate air ventilation and filtration systems. The Airstream Company built four of them at a total cost of $250,000. Given the futuristic form of the Airstream, with its aerodynamic profile and gleaming aluminum sheathing, the choice could not have been more aesthetically congruent. "One of the units was destroyed after years of neglect," says Allan Needell, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM). "But the other three have survived. The facility now on display at NASM's Udvar-HazyCenter was the one used to isolate the three-man crew of Apollo 11 upon splashdown."

Plans called for Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins to be quarantined—for three weeks, under hermetically sealed conditions—from the moment they opened the hatch of their capsule, bobbing in the Pacific. America's newest heroes had to struggle into biological isolation suits tossed through the hatch after splashdown. (The gear was also donned by recovery helicopter pilot Cmdr. Don Jones and his crew.) When the three astronauts emerged from the helicopter to the cheers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, they were quickly transferred to the MQF. Recovery engineer John Hirasaki, who handled the Moon-dust cleanup, and NASA physician William Carpentier joined them in quarantine. Anxiety regarding a possible infection was heightened by the presence on the carrier of President Richard Nixon.

Once in the Airstream, the crew found quarters far more spacious than the Apollo capsule's: the quarantine trailer contained a living area, sleeping compartment and kitchen, plus airline-type seats for use when the MQF was ferried in the belly of a C-141 transport plane. The astronauts would spend 65 hours in its tightly sealed interior.

In a now-famous photograph of President Nixon speaking by microphone to Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, the astronauts peer out from the Airstream's rear window like kids wishing they could come out to play. While the trio waved and smiled at the president and the press, Hirasaki and Carpentier had the historic privilege of conversing, not to mention drinking martinis, with the returning heroes. "They were really excited," Hirasaki says. "They reminded me of a group of schoolboys who'd had an amazing adventure and couldn't wait to tell about it."

Two days after splashdown, the Hornet made port at Pearl Harbor; the MQF was lowered to the dock and transported by truck to Hickam Air Force Base. The three astronauts in their trailer were next shuttled by C-141 jet to Houston. There the men were greeted, again through the window, by their wives, who—perhaps by coincidence—were attired in a red dress, a white dress and a blue dress. By July 28, the MQF and its cargo of spacemen, Moon rocks and two NASA volunteers had arrived at the JohnsonSpaceCenter in Houston. The passengers then transferred to the much larger Lunar Receiving Lab for two more weeks of quarantine.

In the years to come, the other quarantine facilities would be on hand for the landing of the crews from Apollo 12 later in 1969 and Apollo 14 in 1971. (In 1970, Apollo 13's Moon landing was famously aborted after an onboard explosion.) By the time the Apollo 15 lunar landing took place in July 1971, the fear of pathogens had receded and the use of trailers was abandoned. Hirasaki, who today works in Houston as a technical support engineer on the International Space Station, says his time in the MQF had little long-term effect on him. "Some people call me a lunatic," he quips, "but that wasn’t anything I caught."

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