Friday, April 19

When Apollo 11 astronauts spent three weeks in a NASA bunker for fear of “moon bugs”


As much as you are passionate about the history of NASA and the space pioneers of the 20th century, the name of Terry Slezak probably means little to you. Normal. Slezak was not an astronaut, or a politician, or a scientist. His job was to be in the right place at the right time, take good shots, and take care of the NASA images. His role: photographer.

And yet Slezak stars in one of the most curious episodes of the space chronicle. Not so much because of his work, but also because of the blunder that he committed towards the summer of 1969 while messing with the material that the crew of Apollo 11 had brought back from the Moon.

That, and the consequent scare.

Watch out for moon dust

During their visit to the Moon Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin dedicated themselves to taking photos and recordings of everything, accumulating reels that they later labeled, saved and stored for study in the NASA offices. Despite the care they put into their task, however, one of those cartridges ended up crashing against the surface of the satellite and dusting.

Moon dust, sure.

The event was of no importance. The astronauts picked up the dusty cartridge, filed it away with the rest of the reels, and added a note—handwritten by Aldrin himself—warning those who went to study the material at NASA facilities that this particular piece was contaminated and should be treated with special caution; but…

…But Slezak, one of the technicians who took on the task of handling the Apollo 11 graphic archive, did not see it and ended up with several fingers smudged with black specks like coal. Half a century later it may seem like nonsense that does not even reach the category of tabletop anecdote; but in 1969 things were different and that activated the alerts of the space agency.

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Terry Slezak, at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, shows off his moondust-stained hand.

When NASA realized what had happened, Slezak had to stay alone in the work room that he shared with the rest of his colleagues, they took photos of him, he undressed, thoroughly cleaned the area with bleach and underwent a decontamination process.

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Between the accident and the fear that the dust would scratch the film —what really worried him, Slezak would later assure— the good photographer was close to 24 hours without sleep.

All for a few specks of dust?

All for a few specks of dust.

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The “bill” that Slezak had to pay is nothing, however, when compared to that of Armstrong, Aldrin and his partner on Apollo 11, Michael Collins. Upon returning to Earth after their mission, the three had to put on an insulating suit —known as BIG (Biological Isolation Garments)—, thoroughly disinfect themselves and undergo a three week quarantine during which they passed medical controls and what they had brought from the Moon was looked at with a magnifying glass.

Not even for Armstrong’s birthday did they turn a blind eye. The first man to step on the Moon was a legend, a myth in life; but he had to blow out all 39 candles in strict quarantine.

Why? Well, for the same reason that Slezak’s missteps with the moondust would trigger NASA’s security protocols, a compelling reason: the fear that the Apollo 11 team and crew had returned with foreign microorganisms or pathogens capable of threatening the security of the Earth. As Aldrin would come to say with irony, the scientists wanted to confirm that they had not returned home from their Selenic adventure laden with “bugs from the Moon.”

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The Apollo 11 astronauts, clad in BIG gear, after their return to Earth.

With Apollo 11, humanity interacted for the first time in a direct and intentional way with the surface of another object in the universe and that, NASA thought, well deserved to reinforce the maximum security. The debate about how we should act when we return from the Moon and handle the material we bring with us dates back to 1963, with the Interagency Committee on Back Contamination, and by the time in July 1969 the Columbia command module of Apollo 11 splashed down on the Hawaiian waters was now polished enough to be applied with military precision.

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When the US rescue team pulled the three astronauts out of the Columbia capsule in the Pacific, they were given a special suit of biological isolation (BIG), disinfected them and after a short helicopter ride ended up confining them in a mobile quarantine module (MQF) together with a doctor and an engineer. From there, like three prisoners confined in a silver dungeon with the emblem of the White House and hermetic closure, they met with Richard Nixon.

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That peculiar module, an aluminum trailer equipped with a generator, batteries and an air conditioning system that avoided any risk of contagion, served the team as a provisional “home”.

The space in which they spent most of their quarantine was NASA’s Lunar Reception Laboratory, at the Johnson Space Center for Manned Flight, a 7,700 m2 bunker sealed to the millimeter to guarantee that if Aldrin, Armstrong or Collins carried any lunar germ could not spread over the planet. There they underwent medical scrutiny. And there Armstrong was forced to blow out his 39th birthday candles on a cake baked by center staff.

To reassure NASA, the tests confirmed that there was no risk. Not in the three astronauts, nor in the samples they had brought back from the satellite and the agency had handled with similar caution. “We spent 21 days in quarantine when we returned from the Moon. NASA needed to make sure the Earth was safe from potential moon germs! Fortunately, we had no ‘bugs’ from the moon: Only one case of boredom was detected!”, Aldrin would joke later.

Although the experience of Apollo 11 helped refine some details of the system — one of the things that was improved was the cumbersome BIG spacesuit — Armstrong and his companions were not the only ones to undergo an isolation phase after returning to Earth. As CNN recalls, NASA followed a similar protocol with Apollo 12 and 14; in missions 15, 16 and 17 he simplified the process to focus on a medical check-up. To date, it is not foreseen for the Artemis program either.

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Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin listen to Nixon from the USS Hornet. The photo was taken on July 24, 1969.

The question is… Were the scientists of the US agency really afraid that the astronauts would bring with them germs from the Moon? in his book We’re alone? Carlos Briones remembers how in the Outer Space Treatysigned at the UN in 1967, several years before Apollo 11, states were expected to do what was necessary to “avoid dangerous pollution and adverse changes in the environment as a result of the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.”

The most sensationalist press of the 1960s fueled that caution and stirred up fear with bizarre headlines What The return of the Moon, bacteriological problem either What will travelers from the Moon bring us?, an apocalyptic tone that permeated part of society. Among the scientific community, the vision of the problem was different: “In reality, there was little concern about the possible risk associated with selenite microorganisms, given all the previous data that indicated the very low probability that there was life on our satellite,” explains Briones. in your essay.

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The slim odds did not, however, prevent the Apollo 11 team from having to spend their first glory weeks locked up and under supervision, Armstrong blowing out all 39 candles locked up, and Slezak’s day being made badly difficult by a bit of moondust.

Ironies of history, today scientists are concerned about a very different risk: that we humans are the ones who contaminate other places in the universe during our explorations.

Pictures | POT

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