Apollo Moon Landings: Contamination / Decontamination Concerns


I knew the job was dangerous when I took it ...
Staff member
Jul 19, 2004
Out of Bounds
This month saw the peak of the Apollo 11 50th anniversary commemorations. One aspect of the Apollo 11 mission that didn't get much attention was the concern for post-mission decontamination and testing of lunar samples for possible toxic / biohazard effects.

This was, after all, the first time humans had mucked around on another 'world'. Even though it was presumed there could be no biotic nasties awaiting us on the moon, NASA took precautions.

Until the article cited below triggered old memories, I'd forgotten that the Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined for 3 weeks. I generally recall the lunar samples being tested for possible exposure effects, but I don't recall some of the specifics mentioned in the article.
NASA Fed Apollo 11 Moon Rocks to Cockroaches (And Then Things Got Even Weirder)

It's too weird to make up: NASA fed some of its precious Apollo 11 lunar samples to cockroaches. And dumped it in fishbowls. And injected mice with it. No, really.

NASA still has most of the moon rocks the Apollo 11 crew brought home, but a small fraction of the astronauts' bounty was used up in a little-known but vitally important set of experiments that ensured lunar samples were safe to keep here on Earth.

Scientists were pretty sure that there weren't any potentially dangerous germs living on the moon, but they couldn't be absolutely sure. And while the retrieval of moon rocks was an incredible gift to science, it could have been quite a curse on Earth if those rocks had turned out to be a risk to terrestrial life. So as part of the agency's preparations for the mission, NASA had to put together a program of tests.

"We had to prove that we weren't going to contaminate not only human beings, but we weren't going to contaminate fish and birds and animals and plants and you name it," Charles Berry, who was in charge of medical operations during Apollo, said in a 1999 oral history. "Any of the Earth's biosphere, we had to prove we weren't going to affect it. So we had to develop an amazing program that was carried off really for three flights' worth. A lot of trouble." ...

The astronauts themselves were shuffled into quarantine after their return to Earth, where they remained isolated from all but 20 humans for three weeks, from the moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the moon. A collection of mice also shot to fame while the astronauts were in quarantine: They were injected with lunar material and were monitored just as closely as the crew, who also joined in the watch. ...

But confirming humans and mice would survive a chance lunar encounter wasn't enough, and keeping all other terrestrial life safe was a little more complicated than watching for coughs or rashes. One NASA document refers to trying to establish procedures as navigating a "sea of ignorance" and emphasized that the authors couldn't predict how much moon rock the tests they outlined would consume. ...

First, NASA chose the species it would use. In addition to the mice, the agency and its partners also selected other representative species: Japanese quail to represent birds, a couple of nondescript fish, brown shrimp and oysters for shellfish, German cockroaches and houseflies for creepy-crawlies, and more. ...

"The results of these tests provided no information that would indicate that the lunar samples returned by the Apollo 11 mission contained replicating agents hazardous to life on earth," concluded the authors of a paper* recounting the tests on "lower animals" published in the journal Science a year after Apollo 11. ...
FULL STORY: https://www.livescience.com/66046-nasa-fed-moon-rocks-to-cockroaches.html


Apollo 11: Exposure of Lower Animals to Lunar Material
C. A. Benschoter1, T. C. Allison1, J. F. Boyd1, M. A. Brooks1, J. W. Campbell1, R. O. Groves1, A. M. Heimpel1, H. E. Mills1, S. M. Ray1, J. W. Warren1, K. E. Wolf1, E. M. Wood1, R. T. Wrenn1, Z. Zein-Eldin1
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Science 31 Jul 1970:
Vol. 169, Issue 3944, pp. 470-472
DOI: 10.1126/science.169.3944.470