When the Apollo 11 astronauts went to the moon in July 1969, NASA was concerned about their safety during the complex flight. The agency was also concerned about what the astronauts might bring.
For years before Apollo 11, officials had been concerned that the moon might harbor microorganisms. What if lunar microbes survived the return journey and caused moon fever on Earth?
To contain the possibility, NASA planned to quarantine the people, instruments, samples and space vehicles that had come into contact with lunar material.
But in an article published this month in the science history journal Isis, Dagomar Degroot, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, shows that these “planetary protection” efforts have been inadequate, to an extent not previously widely known.
“The quarantine protocol seemed to be a success,” concludes Dr. Degroot in the study, “only because it was not necessary.”
From the archival work of Dr. Degroot also appears that NASA officials knew about it that lunar germs could pose an existential (albeit unlikely) threat and that their lunar quarantine would probably not keep Earth safe if such a threat existed. They have oversold their ability to neutralize that threat anyway.
This space age story, claims Dr. Degroot’s paper, exemplifies the tendency in scientific projects to downplay existential risks, which are improbable and difficult to treat, in favor of focusing on smaller, more probable problems. It also provides useful lessons as NASA and other space agencies prepare to collect samples from Mars and other worlds in the solar system for study on Earth.
In the 1960s, no one knew if the moon harbored life. But scientists were so concerned that in 1964 the National Academy of Sciences held a high-level conference to discuss the Moon-Earth contamination. “They agreed that the risk was real and the consequences could be significant,” said Dr Degroot.
The scientists also agreed that quarantine for anything returning from the moon was both necessary and pointless: Humans probably couldn’t contain a microscopic threat. The best Earthlings could do was delay the release of the microbes until scientists developed a countermeasure.
Despite those conclusions, NASA publicly maintained that it could protect the planet. It has spent tens of millions of dollars on an advanced quarantine facility, the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. “But for all this beautiful complexity, there were just basic, fundamental mistakes,” said Dr. Degroot.
NASA officials knew full well that the lab was not perfect. Dr. Degroot’s paper describes many of the findings of inspections and tests that revealed glove boxes and sterilization autoclaves that burst, leaked or overflowed.
In the weeks following the return of the Apollo 11 crew, 24 workers were exposed to the lunar material from which the facility’s infrastructure was designed to protect them; they had to quarantine. The containment failures were “largely hidden from the public eye,” wrote Dr. Degroot.
Laboratory emergency procedures — such as what to do in the event of a fire or medical problem — also include breaking insulation.
“This ended up being an example of planetary protection security theater,” said Jordan Bimm, a science historian at the University of Chicago who was not involved with Dr. Degroot.
The return of the Apollo 11 astronauts to Earth also endangered the planet. For example, their vehicle was designed to self-ventilate on the way down, and the astronauts had to open their hatch into the ocean.
In a 1965 memo, a NASA official stated that the agency had a moral obligation to prevent potential contamination, even if it meant changing the weight, cost, or schedule of the mission. But four years later, upon returning to Earth, the spacecraft vented anyway and the capsule’s interior encountered the Pacific Ocean.
“If lunar organisms had been present that could reproduce in Earth’s ocean, we would have been toasted,” said John Rummel, who served two terms as NASA’s planetary protection officer.
The likelihood that such organisms did existence was very small. But the consequences if they did were huge – and the Apollo program essentially accepted them on behalf of the planet.
This tendency to downplay existential risks — prioritizing probable threats with lower consequences instead — is emerging in areas such as climate change, nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence, said Dr. Degroot.
In the Apollo mission, officials not only downplayed the risks; they were not transparent about it.
“Failure is part of learning,” said Dr. Bimm about the inadequate quarantine.
Understanding what didn’t work will be important as NASA prepares to return samples from Mars, a place much more likely than the moon to host life, in the 2030s.
NASA has learned a lot about planetary protection since Apollo, said Nick Benardini, the agency’s current planetary protection officer. It’s building protection from the ground up and holding workshops to understand science gaps, and it’s already working on a Mars sample lab.
The agency also intends to be fair to the public. “Risk communication and communication as a whole is very important,” said Dr. Bernardini. After all, he noted, “What’s at stake is the Earth’s biosphere.”
It is difficult to imagine that the biosphere is in danger from alien organisms, but the probability is not zero. “Low probability and high-impact risks really matter,” said Dr. Degroot. “Mitigating it is one of the most important things governments can do.”