The Astronauts in Quarantine

After the President and other celebrities departed, the U.S.S. Hornet continued steaming back to Hawaii, arriving at Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of July 26. The mobile quarantine facility with its five passengers* was hoisted off the ship onto a truck for transfer to Hickam Air Force Base a few miles away, pausing briefly to acknowledge the greetings of the mayor and several thousand citizens of Honolulu. At Hickam the trailer was loaded into a C-141 cargo aircraft, which departed immediately for Houston.61 Just after midnight the big plane touched down at Ellington Air Force Base, where a large crowd awaited a glimpse of the astronauts. Three hours later the crew and their companions entered their living quarters at the lunar receiving laboratory, which would be their home for at least the next three weeks.62 On hand to greet them were the support personnel who had entered the living quarters the week before: a clinical pathologist, five laboratory technicians, three stewards, photography specialist, Brown & Root-Northrop's logistic operations officer, and a representative of MSC's public affairs office.63

After a day off to recuperate from the stresses of the preceding two weeks - since July 16 they had been cooped up in very close quarters - the crew began a week of intensive technical and medical debriefings. Periodic examinations and blood tests monitored the physiological effects of their flight and recovery, while the doctors kept a close watch for any signs of exotic infection. The living quarters were equipped for routine clinical tests, or even minor surgery; but if a life-threatening medical emergency arose, whether from recognizable or unfamiliar causes, the victim would be transferred out to a hospital regardless of any concern for back-contamination.64

Although all three astronauts were veterans of prior missions, none had ever spent so much time in space, and post-mission activities had never been conducted under strict confinement. Thus quarantine quickly became oppressive, the more so because only meager provision had been made for recreation. An exercise room was available, as well as a Ping-Pong table, and they could read or watch television or talk by telephone to their families, but it was not like being at home. At the conclusion of the technical debriefing sessions, less than a week after they returned, they were called upon to comment on operations in the receiving laboratory. Armstrong was noncommittal, saying that so far it had been going "about as well as you can expect." Collins's less tolerant response was, "I want out."65

Since no press conference with the astronauts was scheduled before quarantine was lifted, reporters' only source of information was a daily briefing by John McLeaish, the public affairs officer confined in the crew quarters. Once or twice a day McLeaish briefed the press pool through a glass wall in the conference room where the crew debriefings took place. Most of the time he had little to report: everyone inside was healthy, the astronauts were busy with debriefings or writing their pilot's reports, and otherwise nothing much was going on.66 And so it remained for the duration of the three-week quarantine.

* A physician, Dr. William R. Carpentier, and a technician, John Hirasaki, joined the crew in the quarantine trailer aboard the recovery ship and remained in quarantine with them.

61. "Apollo 11 Mission Report," p. 13-4.

62. Ibid.

63. MSC Public Affairs Office, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory - Status Report No. 1," July 21, 1969.

64. Idem, "Status Report, John McLeaish Comments on Crew, 7/28/69, CDT 08:05 AM," July 28, 1969; Richard S. Johnston, Lawrence F. Dietlein, M.D., and Charles A. Berry, M.D., eds., Biomedical Results of Apollo, NASA SP-368 (Washington, 1975), p. 418. If indeed there was a serious risk of contaminating the earth with alien organisms, the decision to breach quarantine in the event of a life-threatening emergency would have meant taking that risk rather than sacrificing an astronaut. No one seems to have contested that decision; perhaps this indicates the real perception of risk from "moon bugs."

65. MSC, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory, MSC Building 37, Facility Description," September 1968, pp. 8- 19; "Apollo 11 Technical Crew Debriefing," vol. II, p. 26-4.

66. MSC Public Affairs Office, Crew Status Reports, July 28-Aug. 10, 1969.

Previous Next Index