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The Specter of "Back-Contamination"

Houston's planning for the sample receiving laboratory was vastly complicated the following summer by a question Hess's committee had emphasized in its February report. They stated a clear requirement for quarantine of the lunar material until biologists could ascertain that it harbored no living organisms that might threaten the earth's biosphere.18

The possibility that life exists or has existed elsewhere in the universe - even within our solar system - evolved from a science-fiction fantasy to a serious scientific question within a few decades. Although no positive evidence has ever been found to indicate that even the simplest living organisms exist elsewhere, a considerable accumulation of evidence that life might appear, under the right conditions, has led to a widespread conviction that it has appeared,* somewhere.19

As early as 1960 the Space Science Board had advised that NASA and other concerned government agencies (e.g., the Public Health Service) should establish an interagency committee on interplanetary quarantine to formulate a national policy for handling spacecraft and material returned from other planets.20 Two years later, the working group on biology of the Iowa summer study [see Chapter 1] noted that

the introduction into the Earth's biosphere of destructive alien organisms could be a disaster. . . . We can conceive of no more tragically ironic consequence of our search for extraterrestrial life.

Acknowledging that scientists by no means unanimously agreed on the existence of extraterrestrial life, the group nonetheless recommended that NASA employ

appropriate quarantine and other procedures... when handling returned samples, spacecraft, and astronauts [in order to] make the risk as small as possible.21
These cautions had little effect on NASA's plans - in part because the danger seemed remote in the early 1960s, but also because no one in the space agency spoke** for the life sciences.22 In the early days of space flight few biologists were interested in the space environment; the frontiers of biology were on earth. The life-science community created no demand for NASA support comparable to that created by space physics and astronomy.23

As the Apollo program progressed, however, and the prospect of people returning from the moon with boxes of lunar rocks and soil became increasingly likely, concerned biologists continued to call attention to the need for precautions against contamination of the earth by organisms from the moon. On July 29, 1964, the Space Science Board convened a conference of representatives from the Public Health Service, the Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Academy of Sciences, and NASA to assess the back-contamination problem and recommend courses of action. The conference concluded that

the existence of life on the moon or planets cannot . . . rationally be precluded. At the very least, present evidence is not inconsistent with its presence. . . . Negative data will not prove that extraterrestrial life does not exist; they will merely mean that it has not been found [emphasis added]."***
To contain any alien life forms, astronauts, spacecraft, and lunar materials coming back from the moon should be placed immediately in an isolation unit; the astronauts should be held in rigid quarantine for at least three weeks; and preliminary examination of the samples should be conducted behind "absolute biological barriers, under rigid bacterial and chemical isolation." NASA should immediately take steps to work out the operational details of these procedures.24

When Harry Hess's committee, speaking for the Space Science Board, reported its position on back-contamination the following February, both Headquarters and the Manned Spacecraft Center realized that quarantine was a more serious concern than they had anticipated.25 Although the director of Biosciences Programs in the Office of Space Science and Applications had kept in contact with the National Academy of Sciences and the Public Health Service, the emphasis on the possible dangers of lunar material came as a surprise to him.26 Most speculation about extraterrestrial life excluded the moon. At Houston, the report portended serious complications in the design of the receiving laboratory and probably in flight operations as well, and Faget's organization took steps to clarify the quarantine requirements.27 Action at higher levels was slow in coming, however. Only in May did the NASA Administrator and the Surgeon General (chief of the Public Health Service [PHS]) discuss the matter, agreeing to set up an interagency advisory committee to deal with back-contamination.28

By the end of July 1965, MSC had incorporated a general requirement for quarantine into its justification for building the receiving lab, but time was growing short and detailed specifications were needed. Then-current plans required the laboratory to be in operation by January 1, 1969. Allowing a year or more for engineering and design studies, another six months for checking out the equipment and procedures, and six months to correct deficiencies uncovered in the shakedown, just over a year would be left to build the laboratory and install the special scientific equipment. Procedures and space requirements for quarantine had to be settled as soon as possible. MSC already had an outside engineering firm working on a preliminary engineering survey, which would define the laboratory's special requirements and determine what additional studies might be needed to specify its specialized scientific equipment.29

Others at MSC were working to formulate a center policy on quarantine in the hope that it could be simplified as much as possible. In late July, Headquarters arranged for an informal meeting of PHS and manned space flight representatives to discuss quarantine and the lunar sample receiving laboratory.30 Knowing that MSC had little chance of convincing the PHS that no hazard existed, Elbert King consulted with center medical experts and prepared a statement asserting that only subsurface samples should be treated as potential hazards and that quarantine could be terminated as soon as returned samples were found free of exotic organisms. He also set down several important policy questions concerning quarantine to serve as the basis for discussions with the PHS.31

When the two groups met at Houston on September 27, 1965, it soon became apparent that MSC's evaluation of the hazard presented by lunar material was not shared by PHS officials. King argued that the lunar surface could be considered sterile: it was in a high vacuum, devoid of water, exposed to intense ultraviolet radiation and subatomic particles from the solar wind, and subjected to severe temperature changes. "If you really wanted to try to design a sterile surface," King later summarized his argument, "this was it." Thus surface material and the astronauts who came in contact only with it should not require such rigorous isolation as samples taken from greater depths. The PHS representative, Dr. James Goddard, chief of the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, was unmoved by these arguments. He asked whether anyone could be certain that no microorganisms could survive anywhere on the moon - in sheltered areas, for example. When no one could offer such assurance, Goddard insisted that quarantine must be strict. He and other PHS officials were upset, in fact, that MSC had taken such a casual view of the biological hazard. Even if it cost $50 million to implement an effective quarantine, Goddard said, the importance of the issues justified the added expense.32 When MSC asked whether the PHS's immigration officers would allow the Apollo astronauts to enter the United States if they were handled in the same way the Gemini crews had been, the reply was emphatic: they would not.33

When the conference was over MSC officials knew that the lunar receiving laboratory would have to be even larger and more expensive than they had expected. Quarantine would require astronauts and a fairly large support staff to five in isolation for at least three weeks. The numerous postmission debriefings would have to be conducted through the biological barrier. Not only that, but recovery operations would be much more difficult. PHS officials wanted to prevent exposure of the command module's interior to the earth's atmosphere from the moment it splashed down in the ocean, and the astronauts would have to be isolated at once - even in the rubber rafts used by the recovery crews. On reaching the recovery ship they would be led straight to a mobile quarantine chamber that could be flown back to the mainland. Passing the word to all branches of the Systems Engineering Division at MSC, Division Chief Owen Maynard directed them to show what measures were being taken to comply with these requirements. "Rather than assume the standard answer that no changes can - be made within present weight, cost and schedule limitations," he said, "you should assume that [we are] morally obligated to prevent any possible contamination of the earth." Initial examination should be based on the ground rule that "no [command module] components can be exposed to the earth's atmosphere following entry, except those components external to the pressure shell which cannot be contaminated by the cabin environment." While conceding that the first look might show the problems to be insurmountable, Maynard noted that the hazards should be completely documented so that action could be taken as needed.34

Maynard's instructions to his division probably reflected a widespread mood of resignation to working around the difficulties that would result from imposition of strict quarantine, which, in the view of some, was unnecessary.35 But the question of back-contamination had been raised by the scientific community and recognized as important by the Space Science Board and thus had the potential to become a political issue that could create much adverse publicity for the Apollo program.

Toward the end of 1965 it was generally accepted that crew and samples would have to be strictly quarantined. On November 15 NASA's Deputy Administrator, Hugh L. Dryden, wrote to the Surgeon General proposing that a formal liaison office with the Public Health Service be established, that a NASA-PHS advisory committee be set up to establish guidelines for back-contamination control and oversee NASA's efforts to avoid infecting the earth, and that the PHS recommend the kind of facilities and staff required to carry out those efforts.36 The Surgeon General's reply a month later paved the way for establishing formal cooperation in managing quarantine in the Apollo program.37

* The argument runs roughly as follows. Simple organic molecules related to the substances out of which living matter is made have been detected in space. Other organic material, possibly derived from living organisms, has been found in meteorites. Conclusive experiments have shown that precursors to living matter can be built from chemically simple substances under conditions presumed to have existed on the ancient earth. Given the vast number of galaxies observable in the universe (a billion billion, according to one estimate) it seems probable that solar systems like our own exist somewhere in those galaxies, and that conditions favoring the origin of life exist on an appreciable number of planets similar to earth.

** See Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere, chap. 16 ("Life Sciences: No Place in the Sun"). Of all the life sciences, space medicine - the effects of the space environment on human physiology - was the only one of prime concern to manned space flight; but it was only a subsidiary effort in Mercury and Gemini and was concerned mainly with settling some crucial operational questions. See John A. Pitts, The Human Factor: Biomedicine in the Manned Space Program to 1980, NASA SP-4213 (Washington, 1985).

*** This statement is quite correct; experimental proof of a negative postulate, such as "life does not exist on Mars," is, in any practical sense, impossible. But many must have felt like one anonymous reader at MSC, who pencilled opposite the sentence in the margin of his copy of the report: "Like witches."

18. Hess to Newell, Feb. 2, 1965.

19. See the testimony of Dr. Colin S. Pittendrigh in Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Scientists' Testimony on Space Goals, 88/1, June 10-11, 1963, pp. 73-80. Pittendrigh cited the same estimate of the probability of life in the universe as that given by Su-Shu Huang ("Occurrence of Life in the Universe," American Scientist 47 (1959): 397-403), who estimated that one billion billion (10 E18) planets in the observable universe might be sites for the evolution of life. See also the report of the biology working group in A Review of Space Research, pp. 9-1 to 9-4, 9-6. For a discussion of the arguments concerning life in the solar system, see Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neumann Ezell, On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet, 1958-1978, NASA SP-4212 (Washington, 1984), pp. 51-66; see also their bibliography, p. 482, and survey of preliminary results of the life-detecting experiments on the Viking landing missions, pp. 400-414.

20. Minutes, meeting of the Exobiology Committee of the Space Science Board, Feb. 20, 1960, cited in Space Science Board, "Conference on Potential Hazards of Back Contamination from the Planets, July 29- 30, 1964" (advance copy), no date [Aug. 1964].

21. A Review of Space Research, p. 9-13.

22. Homer E. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science, NASA SP-4211 (Washington, 1980), pp. 274-75.

23. Ibid.

24. Space Science Board, "Conference on Potential Hazards of Back Contamination."

25. Eggleston to multiple addressees, "Sterilization precautions and quarantine of astronauts and equipment following Apollo missions," Feb. 5, 1965.

26. Orr E. Reynolds to Assoc. Adm. for Space Science and Applications, "Responsibility for Space Quarantine," July 2, 1965.

27. Eggleston to multiple addressees, "Sterilization precautions . . . ," Feb. 5, 1965; Eggleston to multiple addressees, "Recommendations on NASA Position on Sterilization and Quarantine of Apollo Astronauts and Equipment," Feb. 19, 1965.

28. Revnolds to Assoc. Adm. for SSA, "Status of the Public Health Service-National Aeronautics and Space Administration negotiations on back contamination," May 10, 1965.

29. W. E. Stoney, Jr., to Chief, Engineering Div., "Support Information for FY 67 C of F Project - Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory" July 30, 1965; Hall to Ed Chao, "Engineering Study and Preliminary Engineering Report for Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory," July 1, 1965.

30. Reynolds to the record, "Summary of meeting between representatives of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Public Health Service, July 31, 1965," Aug. 17, 1965.

31. W. W. Kemmerer, Jr., and E. A. King, Jr., to Faget, "Proposed MSC Quarantine Policy for the Apollo Program," with encl., "Proposed Quarantine Policy for Apollo Program," Sept. 23, 1965.

32. Elbert A. King, Jr., interview with Loyd S. Swenson, May 27, 1971, tape in JSC History Office files; Kemmerer and King to the record, "Summary of a meeting between representatives of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Public Health Service and the Department of Agriculture, MSC, Houston, Texas, September 27, 1965," Sept. 30, 1965.

33. Lawrence B. Hall to Deputy Adm., "Informal Conference on Back Contamination Problems," Oct. 15, 1965.

34. Owen E. Maynard to PS Branches, "Earth contamination from lunar surface organisms," Oct. 29, 1965.

35. King interview.

36. Hugh L. Dryden to William H. Stewart, Nov. 15, 1966.

37. Stewart to Webb, Dec. 22, 1966.

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