Complexities of Quarantine

Quarantine took up much of the time to the LRL during 1967. An Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC), established in 1966, [see Chapter 4] served as the policy-making board on questions of quarantine.* As the receiving lab moved toward operational readiness, some possible complexities of operations became apparent. Theoretically the approval of all the concerned regulatory agencies would have to be secured before the samples could be released to lunar scientists. In January 1967, Robert Gilruth sent his deputy, George Low, to Atlanta to discuss matters with ICBC chairman David Sencer. Low and Sencer readily agreed that a single official at MSC should be given the authority of the ICBC to approve the quarantine protocol and to release the lunar samples when the protocol had been satisfied. (NASA Headquarters had already indicated that NASA's authority to release the samples could be delegated to Gilruth.) The ICBC would develop quarantine procedures, its representative in Houston would certify to Gilruth that those procedures had been satisfied, and Gilruth would order quarantine terminated.57 If a long chain of approvals - from each of the regulatory agencies through Headquarters to MSC - could be avoided, the academic investigators could have their lunar material much sooner.

Once in the lunar receiving laboratory, crews and lunar samples were safely sealed off from the earth, but between the command module floating on the Pacific Ocean and the crew quarters in Houston was a gap in the containment of extraterrestrial material. By late August 1966 it had been agreed that a "mobile quarantine facility" would be used to transport the lunar explorers from the recovery ship to the receiving lab. Essentially a travel trailer that could accommodate six people for four days, the isolation van would be modified to prevent the escape of infectious agents. It would be sealed aboard the recovery ship, carried from the splashdown point to Hawaii, flown in a C-141 cargo aircraft to Ellington Air Force Base near MSC, and hauled by truck to the LRL, where the astronauts would enter quarantine through a plastic tunnel extending from the van to the LRL door.58

A similar method might be used aboard ship to transfer the astronauts from the spacecraft to the mobile quarantine facility. If the command module was assumed to be contaminated it should not be opened; hence the sealed spacecraft with its human contents should be hoisted onto the deck of the recovery ship, where the astronauts could pass through a plastic tunnel from spacecraft to isolation van. Landing operations managers were unwilling to risk this, however, because of the possibility of injuring the crewmen if the spacecraft were dropped. Yet there seemed no feasible way to open the command module while it floated on the ocean and still keep it isolated from the earth's biosphere. After examining the spacecraft's environmental control system, the ICBC was satisfied that it would effectively filter out airborne bacteria during the long return trip from the moon.59 Thus only the astronauts - not the atmosphere of the command module - were likely to harbor biological contaminants, and some means had to be devised to keep them from infecting the world on their short trip from the spacecraft to the isolation van. The solution was to bag them in plastic: a "biological isolation garment," a zippered plastic coverall equipped with a respirator. The recovery crew would toss these into the spacecraft; the astronauts would don them before entering the recovery raft and remove them after they were sealed in their temporary quarters aboard ship.60

Another key problem was the selection of biological tests - the "protocol" -that would give maximum assurance that the samples harbored no dangerous organisms while requiring minimum time and facilities in the receiving lab. Early in 1966 MSC had contracted with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to develop the test protocol, which the ICBC reviewed at its December meeting.61 The objective of the protocol was to permit a biomedical assessment of lunar material so that samples could be released within 30 days of their arrival at the LRL, unless some evidence of extraterrestrial organisms appeared. The samples would be examined microscopically for evidence of living organisms, and then a variety of plants and animals would be exposed to lunar material to determine whether they were affected by it. After some discussion at the meeting, committee members were asked to review the plan, considering the limitations of time, facilities, and laboratory personnel, and recommend a collection of tests that would provide the best statistical validity for the protocol.62

After looking over the proposed quarantine protocol, Wolf Vishniac, biologist at the University of Rochester representing the National Academy of Sciences, raised a question that the committee would discuss for the rest of the year. Baylor's proposed battery of biological tests was quite comprehensive; as a result, Vishniac noted, it would require a very large sample. He then asked what would be done if, as "an extreme case, . . . no samples of lunar material [were] collected and brought back [other than] dust brought from the lunar surface into the space capsule and inhaled by the astronauts." Between this and the several kilograms of lunar soil that was the nominal sample lay a range of possibilities in which only grams or fractions of grams of material might be available. If the crew should have to leave the moon with only a small sample, how could a satisfactory quarantine examination be carried out and still leave material for other scientists to work with? Vishniac took the position that if extraterrestrial organisms existed they were bound to be introduced into the earth's biosphere eventually, no matter how rigorous the precautions, if planetary exploration continued. Therefore the Apollo quarantine protocol should search not for living organisms in general but only for infectious organisms that constituted a clear danger to the earth. Thus the quarantine protocol could be considerably simplified.63 Vishniac's suggestion was privately welcomed at MSC, where some project managers felt that quarantine procedures were on the verge of becoming unworkable.64

Evidently other members of the committee were coming to a similar conclusion, because at the next ICBC meeting they agreed to keep the quarantine protocol under continuing review. They also agreed that samples would be tested on a few well understood living systems rather than a larger number of less common ones. Systems of greatest sensitivity would be selected so that results could be quickly assessed, minimizing the amount of sample required and the time needed to certify the lunar material as harmless.65

At its June meeting the ICBC reviewed the revised quarantine protocol and considered a statistical approach to determining the size of sample required to give the desired reliability. It appeared that 1.2 kilograms (about 2.5 pounds) of material would be needed to conduct an acceptable quarantine protocol. If, as the Santa Cruz conference had recommended, no more than 5 percent of the total lunar material were used for quarantine testing, 24 kilograms (53 pounds) - roughly the nominal lunar sample - would be enough to provide a sample for quarantine testing. The committee would continue to work toward a minimum test protocol in case less than 24 kilograms were returned.66

By the end of the summer the Interagency Committee had agreed on an outline of the procedures for releasing lunar material and astronauts from quarantine. If, as expected, the biological tests showed no exotic organisms and the astronauts developed no symptoms of infection within 21 days, the ICBC would review the data and certify that the crewmen could be released. Any change in the astronauts' general health would call for diagnosis. If the change was noninfectious or could be attributed to familiar terrestrial organisms, quarantine could be ended. But if no cause for the change was readily apparent, the question of release would be passed to a NASA medical team. A similar plan was prescribed for testing and releasing the lunar samples. If there were any doubt about living organisms being in the lunar material, release might be conditional, requiring sterilization or stipulation that the sample could be examined only behind a biological barrier. In all cases, doubtful results could lead to retention of the samples in the receiving laboratory until further testing satisfied all concerned agencies that no hazard existed.67

While the ICBC worked toward a final quarantine protocol, others were looking ahead to premission testing of the receiving laboratory and its facilities. Early in the summer George Mueller sketched out for MSC Director Robert Gilruth a tentative timeline for LRL tests and simulations. According to Mueller's concept, laboratory personnel could be trained in the operation of the equipment and conduct of the quarantine tests before the laboratory was actually occupied. By the end of 1967 some partial simulations should be conducted to confirm the suitability of the lab's systems and the ability of the technical support team to handle the anticipated work load. In the following three months some actual sample-handling simulations should be conducted. By mid-1968, Mueller said, a full-scale dress rehearsal of a mission should be conducted, from splashdown through the end of quarantine. Samples and test subjects would be treated exactly as they would be during an actual mission, with data being accumulated, handled, and reduced in "real time," to iron out any deficiencies remaining in procedures and equipment.68 Houston estimated that preparation for an end-to-end simulation of a lunar mission would require 11 months.69

* Original members of the ICBC in 1966 were David J. Sencer, USPHS, chairman; John R. Bagby, Jr., USPHS; Charles A. Berry, MSC; Aleck C. Bond, MSC; John Buckley, Dept. of Interior; Harold P. Klein, Ames Research Center; G. Briggs Phillips, USPHS; John E. Pickering, OMSF; Leonard Reiffel, OMSF; Ernest Saulmon, Dept. of Agriculture; and Wolf Vishniac, Univ. of Rochester, National Academy of Sciences representative. In January 1967 Robert O. Piland of MSC replaced Bond; later in the year Wilmot N. Hess replaced Piland, James H. Turnock, Jr., OMSF, replaced Reiffel, George L. Mehren, Dept. of Agriculture, replaced Saulmon, and an OSSA member, Lawrence B. Hall, was added.

57. Low to Earle Young, "Various documents concerning back-contamination and lunar sample release," Jan. 23, 1967.

58. Robert L. Tweedie, memo for record, "NASA/DOD Interface Conference, Recovery Quarantine Equipment," Aug. 25, 1966; James C. McLane, Jr., to C. R. Haines, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) functional interfaces with the Apollo Command Module and returned astronauts," Aug. 24, 1966.

59. John E. Pickering, "Minutes, Interagency Committee on Back Contamination," Oct. 3, 1966.

60. Collection of related documents, "Interagency Committee on Back Contamination," no date [approx. Aug. 1966], box 076-12, JSC History Office files.

61. Aleck C. Bond to record, "Interagency Committee Meeting, October 3, 1966," Oct. 6, 1966.

62. W. W. Kemmerer, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory Sample Protocol Briefing December 16, 1966," Dec. 16, 1966; Minutes, Interagency Committee on Back Contamination, Dec. 16, 1985.

63. Wolf Vishniac to Dr. Harry S. Lipscomb (Baylor Coll. of Med.), Feb. 2, 1967.

64. Bond to Deputy Dir., MSC, "Biological protocol for LRL," Feb. 9. 1967.

65. Pickering, "Minutes, Interagency Committee on Back Contamination," Mar. 2, 1967.

66. Pickering, "Minutes, Interagency Committee on Back Contamination," June 7, 1967.

67. Interagency Committee on Back Contamination. "Quarantine Schemes for Manned Lunar Missions," no date [Aug. 1967].

68. George E. Mueller to Gilruth, June 2, 1967.

69. Joseph V. Piland to Dir., Science and Applications, "Simulated handling of astronauts and returned equipment for Apollo missions," Aug. 9, 1967.

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