Prologue Magazine

Moon Rocks and Moon Germs

A History of NASA’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory

Winter 2001, Vol. 33, No. 4

By Kent Carter

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President Richard Nixon commends the Apollo 11 astronauts (Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin), who look out a window in the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet. (National Archives, 428-K-76961)

In 1962, as the recently established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was just beginning to consider how the United States might get its astronauts to the Moon and back, Dr. Carl Sagan warned that there was a remote possibility that lunar explorers might bring deadly organisms back with them that could destroy life on Earth. Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos would make him one of the most widely recognized scientists in the world, but in 1962 he was virtually unknown to the general public, and most of his fellow scientists totally discounted the possibility that any life, let alone any lethal germs, existed on the harsh lunar surface. If Sagan were right, however, the great leap for mankind could lead to its extinction, and no politician was willing to publicly take even the remote risk that germs from the Moon would kill everyone on Earth. Congress authorized NASA to build a Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) in Houston where returning astronauts, their spacecraft, and all of the samples of lunar material could be kept in strict quarantine and tested to determine if they posed a threat to the planet.

Deciding to build the LRL, where to locate it, what it should do, and who should be in charge of operations in it were all products of a complicated and often contentious debate among competing interest groups.1 Engineers trying to build and fly spacecraft found themselves engaged in heated arguments with scientists who wanted astronauts to spend most of their time on the lunar surface doing experiments. A bitter struggle developed within the scientific community between those who wanted to focus on biological containment and those who wanted immediate and unhindered access to lunar material. There were power struggles within NASA as bureaucrats fought over control of scientific activities in the manned space flight program. NASA became embroiled in a turf war with several other federal agencies claiming authority to protect the environment that threatened to delay the first landing attempt. All of these issues had to be resolved within a limited budget and a very tight time schedule in order to meet President Kennedy’s goal of landing Americans on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Kennedy’s goal was achieved, and no deadly organisms were found in any of the lunar samples returned to Earth. The story of how the LRL came to be built has been largely relegated to footnotes in books about the Apollo program. NASA, however, hopes to return material from Mars, comets, and interstellar space, and the whole complicated process will probably have to be repeated to deal with demands from various groups that Earth be protected from whatever those samples might contain. Fortunately, the records that document both the successes and mistakes made in planning, building, and operating the Lunar Receiving Lab have been preserved at the Johnson Space Center and the National Archives–Southwest Region and are available to today’s decision makers. This article is intended to review the issues involved in constructing the LRL and to illustrate the kinds of records that may prove extremely valuable when the debates about protecting Earth from extraterrestrial life are renewed.2


Recognizing a Threat

A Working Group on Lunar Scientific Exploration established by NASA in 1959 recommended that one of the prime objectives of the first lunar landing mission should be the collection of samples for return to Earth, where they could be subjected to detailed study and analysis. None of the scientists on that group suggested that the samples might pose any threat to life on Earth.

Invasions from space were a favorite theme of Hollywood thrillers in the 1950s. Usually the danger was from huge flying saucers or giant Bug-Eyed Monsters armed with ray guns rather than from microscopic organisms. Earth always won, and the special effects and plots in many of these low-budget films were so bad that they may have conditioned millions of moviegoers, including scientists and government officials, to discount any suggestion of a serious biological threat from beyond our atmosphere.3

In February 1960, the Space Science Board of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) warned that life was theoretically possible on other celestial bodies and recommended that precautions be taken to prevent contamination of Earth by any samples returned from the Moon.4 NASA was concentrating on planning Project Mercury, which would put the first American into space, and took little notice of the warning. In June 1962, the NAS Space Science Board issued a report on plans for lunar science missions that noted “the introduction into the Earth’s biosphere of destructive alien organisms could be a disaster of enormous significance to mankind. We can conceive of no more tragically ironic consequence of our search for extraterrestrial life.”5 The report recommended that NASA quarantine returning astronauts as well as any samples they brought back with them. Once again, NASA officials paid little attention to suggestions that it needed to worry about “alien organisms.”

NASA could ignore the concerns of a few scientists, but Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine got the attention of agency management when, during budget hearings in April 1963, she asked about the possibility of a biological threat from the Moon. NASA officials assured her that “studies will be made. . . and appropriate actions taken [but] it does not appear obvious at the moment . . . that early return flights from the Moon present hazards to the Earth.”6 NASA’s confidence rested on the widely held assumption that any life that might exist in the Moon’s hostile environment would be buried deep beneath the surface and would not be encountered by the first crews, who would only take samples at a depth of four to six inches.

Most scientists discounted the possibility of life on the Moon at any depth and were much more concerned with getting samples back to Earth without exposing them to any contamination that would destroy their value for experiments. Reputations could be enhanced and prizes won from research on pristine lunar material, and anything that hindered those research opportunities would be vigorously resisted. Even Sagan admitted that the chances were extremely slim that any harmful lunar organisms existed, but he warned that microorganisms brought back from the Moon might “multiply explosively” once inside the Earth’s atmosphere and argued that it would be irresponsible to take any risks.7 Another word of caution came from the director of spacecraft sterilization for the Lockheed Missile and Space Company, who pointed out that “the Moon has been a vulnerable target in the path of extraterrestrial debris, possibly organic, bacterial, and living—possibly disease carrying.”8

While some members of the scientific community debated the possibility of lunar organisms, NASA engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas, were hard at work planning a landing mission. They proposed that astronauts gather rocks and other lunar material, seal the samples in airtight sample return containers (SRCs) on the lunar surface, and haul them back to Earth, where they would be opened in a sterile environment. That would required building some kind of a facility to provide the sterile environment, and a proposal was submitted in February 1964 to Max Faget, the head of Engineering and Development at MSC, to construct a “clean room” approximately ten feet by ten feet by seven feet where the samples could be opened under a high vacuum and repackaged for “distribution to various researchers.”9

Faget, who was already a legend in the aerospace engineering community, quickly concluded that a single room would not be sufficient, and the proposal was revised by April 14 to provide a 2,500-square-foot Lunar Sample Transfer Facility (LSTF) that would house three vacuum chambers in which the sample return containers could be opened using remote manipulators.10 The proposal was further expanded on May 5 and called for construction of an 8,000-square-foot building costing approximately eleven million dollars. The staff of the LSTF would not just repackage the samples for distribution to other researchers but would also conduct some chemical analysis, radioactivity measurements, and mineralogical and biological testing on-site. The director of MSC, Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, liked the idea of developing a small “in-house” research capability and approved a proposal for review by NASA headquarters that had a price tag of just over nine million dollars. Gilruth and the rest of MSC management did not anticipate that proposing to do some of the preliminary research in Houston would become a major source of controversy that would make it difficult to win approval for the facility.

When planning for a lunar landing began in 1959, virtually everyone involved assumed that astronauts would bring back some rocky souvenirs, but nobody recognized the need for a facility to protect the Earth from what those rocks might contain until 1964. Once that requirement was belatedly acknowledged, it took just over four months for the proposed solution to grow from a single one-hundred-square-foot clean room into a nine-million-dollar laboratory.


The Battles for Control

All large government agencies engage in fights over turf, and NASA is no exception. Responsibility in NASA headquarters for building and flying piloted spacecraft rested with the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF), but responsibility for science programs belonged primarily to the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA). It was not clear who was responsible for science experiments conducted on a manned flight, and this set the stage for a long and often bitter bureaucratic struggle. Both of those offices struggled to assert their authority over the management at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which reported to OMSF but had a well-deserved reputation for independence from anyone in NASA headquarters. This made the fight for control over any facility working on lunar samples a three-sided affair.

At the same time the initial proposal for a clean room was being developed at MSC in Houston, the OSSA in NASA headquarters established a number of Apollo Science Planning Teams composed of experts in various fields to help define lunar surface experiments and hardware. These teams presented their recommendations at a lunar sampling symposium held at MSC just as Dr. Gilruth was considering the proposal for the nine-million-dollar LSTF. The teams expressed the opinion that a receiving facility was a valid requirement and that it should be built in Houston. Members of the biosciences team insisted that all operations be conducted behind a biological barrier to protect the environment from lunar organisms, which was a requirement the MSC proposal did not include even though Sagan and some of his colleagues had been warning NASA for at least two years of the potential hazards of moon germs.

The bioscientists also touched off a storm of controversy within the scientific community by insisting that none of the lunar samples be released to independent investigators until tests had been conducted to determine if any pathogenic organisms were present in the lunar material. This delay would frustrate the scientific investigators who were eager to get access to samples. If the recommendations of the planning teams were accepted, what started out as a simple clean room would now have to be both a research lab that kept contamination out and a quarantine station that could keep moon germs in. There were already a number of biocontainment facilities in operation throughout the United States, but none was capable of conducting the kinds of testing being proposed for the lunar samples.

The power struggle that erupted among the scientists exacerbated the intra-NASA turf fights. The scientists were often frustrated by what they saw as an agency dominated by engineers who showed little interest in doing meaningful lunar science. They tended to support the Office of Space Science and Applications in NASA headquarters but were often critical of that office and frequently argued among themselves. The management at MSC in Houston was equally frustrated with scientists who showed little appreciation for the tremendously complex engineering problems that had to be solved just to get to the Moon and back. The engineers at MSC looked to the Office of Manned Space Flight for support and stressed that astronauts could not do any meaningful science if their spacecraft crashed on the lunar surface and killed them. Designing, building, and operating a joint research/biocontainment facility quickly in this environment of aggressively competing interest groups presented NASA with unique technical and management problems that looked as daunting as the challenge of getting to the Moon.

The situation became even more complex when the number of interest groups increased as a result of a conference on the potential hazards of back contamination held by the National Academy of Sciences Space Science Board on July 29–30, 1964. The rather harmless-sounding term “back contamination” had been adopted to describe what would happen if a spacecraft returning to Earth brought nonterrestrial organisms back with it. NASA already had elaborate procedures for sterilizing spacecraft it sent to Mars, Venus, and the Moon to prevent “forward contamination” of those celestial bodies by terrestrial material. The meeting was attended by representatives from the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA and issued a report that warned that “the existence of life on the moon and planets can not . . . be rationally precluded and the possibility of back contamination must be presumed to exist.” The report went on to note that organisms brought back by Apollo spacecraft could either kill life on Earth outright or flourish to such an extent in the “lush environment of Earth” that they would overgrow terrestrial life forms just as crab grass takes over a lawn. Either scenario would be a disaster, and the attendees urged NASA to take all possible precautions against back contamination.11

The report’s dire warnings received little notice by the public, but NASA could not ignore all those fellow federal agencies insisting on a share of control over astronauts returning from the Moon with potentially deadly material. The facilities engineers at MSC were forced back to the drawing board to include biocontainment in their plans. The cost of the facility soared to over twenty-three million dollars.

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The final floorplan for the Lunar Receiving Laboratory was the result of more than two years of intense argument over how big a facility was needed and what it should do. The Sample Laboratory and the Spacecraft/Crew Reception Area are about equal in size, which probably reflects the uneasy alliance between conflicting demands of the biocontainment and rock research communities. (National Archives at Fort Worth)

For the next two months a steady stream of memorandums flowed between Washington and Houston that resulted in the establishment of an OSSA Ad Hoc Committee on the Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory (LSRL) in October 1964. Federal agencies love to establish “ad hoc committees” when confronted with problems that cross organizational lines or require the assistance of outside groups. The committee, headed by the eminent geologist Dr. Edward Ching Te Chao, was given the task of establishing scientific criteria for the lab and formulating general facility concepts and requirements.12 It met four times between November 9, 1964, and March 15, 1965, and submitted a report that closely paralleled the recommendations made ten months earlier by the Apollo Science Planning Teams.13 The Chao committee, which included some scientists anxious to work with lunar samples, urged NASA to leave the detailed analysis of lunar material to independent investigators and limit any lab built at MSC to time-dependent experiments.

The Chao committee recommended a strict thirty-day quarantine and also considered the possibility of using an existing facility rather than building a new one. The committee conducted a detailed physical inspection of nine sites, concluded that none of them could meet the requirements for both containment and sample handling, and recommended that a receiving laboratory be built at MSC in Houston.

Houston was also the recommendation of the Planetology Subcommittee of OSSA’s Space Science Steering Committee when it met in Chicago in October 1964 just as the Chao committee was being organized. This group, composed mostly of scientists, urged that NASA “place principal reliance on the distribution for study of the lunar samples to the total scientific community” but agreed that a small in-house capability should be established at MSC.14 The steering committee did not define what it meant by small, but it was clear that its members did not want NASA to establish any lab that would restrict access to the samples.

NASA received advice from three other scientific groups in June and July 1965. All of this expert advice clearly showed that there was a basic conflict between the demands of biologists for strict quarantine and geologists for quick access to pristine undamaged samples that would be almost impossible for NASA to reconcile. Any future sample return missions from Mars or deep space will raise the same problem.

The scientists who were concerned about biological containment were vastly outnumbered, but they did have powerful allies in several federal agencies. The Department of Agriculture insisted that it had authority over returning astronauts and moon rocks because they could pose a threat to plant life.15 The Department of the Interior pointed out that it had statutory authority to “take such steps as may be necessary for the preservation and protection of the fish and wildlife resource.”16 The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Public Health Service (PHS) notified NASA that it intended to exercise its legal authority to “make and enforce regulations to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable disease into the United States, its Territories and Possessions."17 On July 31, 1965, representatives from NASA, the PHS, the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Army met in Washington to discuss the potential problem of back contamination. The Public Health Service insisted that an “isolated forward receiving station” be constructed to clear the samples as harmless before allowing them to enter the country but was eventually persuaded to agree that a receiving lab could be located within the continental United States.18

NASA invited the Public Health Service, which was clearly the major force to reckon with, to a meeting in Houston to try to reach an agreement on quarantine policy. Dr. James Goddard, chief of the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, represented PHS. He was not convinced that NASA really appreciated the risks posed by astronauts returning from the Moon and warned that PHS immigration officials would not allow them to enter the United States unless drastic changes were made in the procedures NASA planned to use to recover them after their spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Goddard pointed out that the crew would be directly exposed to any lunar material floating around in their spacecraft during the three-day return flight to Earth and was concerned that pathogens might escape into the ocean when the capsule was vented and the hatch opened. He insisted that the spacecraft and all its contents, including the crew, the lunar samples, and anyone who might come in contact with them be strictly isolated until everything was safely behind the biological barrier in the receiving laboratory. He estimated that the quarantine program could cost as much as fifty million dollars and last four years.19

The heated argument between Public Health Service officials and NASA over procedures would continue until the day Apollo 11 returned to Earth. The Apollo command module was designed only for a water landing, and engineers in the Landing and Recovery Division at MSC stressed that recovery at sea already was a risky business without further complicating it with quarantine procedures to contain moon germs that probably did not even exist. They pointed out that astronaut Gus Grissom had nearly drowned when his Mercury capsule sank before it could be hoisted out of the water. NASA engineers insisted that lifting an unopened command module onto the deck of a ship would be a serious risk to the lives of the crew and the priceless contents of the spacecraft. PHS, however, was adamant, and NASA management conceded that it was “morally obligated to prevent any possible contamination of the earth” and began the difficult job of revising plans for the laboratory and mission procedures.20

Planning for the laboratory had been proceeding even as the various interest groups were developing and expressing their positions. A Technical Working Committee for the Design of the Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory was established at MSC on June 14, 1965. The group submitted a two-volume preliminary engineering report to NASA headquarters for approval on October 21, 1965. It called for construction of an 86,000-square-foot facility at a cost of 9.1 million dollars plus an additional 7 million dollars for special equipment for the various laboratories. The laboratory would need a staff of approximately eighty scientists and technicians and would cost 1.6 million dollars a year to operate.


Selling Congress

NASA headquarters approved the preliminary plans in November and set out to try to convince Congress to fund it. Although the public was still supportive of the effort to beat the Russians to the Moon, the growing demands of the war in Southeast Asia and the domestic war on poverty were making it much more difficult for NASA to win approval for its budget requests. The Office of Management and Budget cut NASA’s fiscal year 1967 request, which included 9.1 million dollars for the receiving laboratory, from 5.556 to 5.012 billion dollars, and the chances of getting even that reduced amount looked slim. The first congressional hearing on the request was held by the Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics on February 18, 1966. The subcommittee was chaired by Olin “Tiger” Teague, whose district in Texas included MSC. Teague was an ex-Marine fighter pilot, a staunch supporter of manned space flight, and one of the primary forces behind the selection of Houston as the home of Manned Spacecraft Center.

NASA mentioned the Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory only once in its 256-page prepared statement, and none of the subcommittee members had any questions about it.21 The subject of back contamination was discussed briefly, and Dr. Robert C. Seamans, NASA’s deputy administrator, assured those present that all possible precautions would be taken because “even though the probability is very low, we, of course, must not take any risks.”22 Thus a requirement that had not even been acknowledged in 1959 had become mandatory and necessary by 1966 because of pressure from vocal scientists and the Public Health Service.

No member of Congress was willing to go on record opposing a facility that would protect Earth from potentially deadly moon germs, but several did question the need for an expensive new laboratory, especially if it were built it Houston. James G. Fulton, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member and a longtime critic of NASA management, led the opposition. Fulton was very much in favor of a vigorous space program but was convinced that NASA management was doing a terrible job running it. In addition to criticizing NASA for concentrating its operations geographically and not training women astronauts, the Pennsylvania Republican was always ready to take the agency to task for building facilities he believed it did not really need. He was convinced that the Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory was yet another example of duplication of facilities and was determined to block its construction.

NASA management was very sensitive to the charges that it was trying to build a “Houston Empire” and quickly drafted a statement that stressed that “the receiving laboratory is a critical and necessary link in the retrieval of material from the lunar surface.”23 NASA also established a special committee that visited eight existing laboratories that might be able to undertake the processing of returned lunar samples and concluded that none of them was capable of meeting requirements without extensive modification that would cost more than the 9.1 million dollars being asked to build a new laboratory in Houston.24

NASA officials testified at a special hearing devoted exclusively to the receiving laboratory on March 31, 1966. Congressman Fulton was not impressed with the recommendations of a committee composed mostly of NASA employees and continued to oppose construction. Dr. George Mueller, the head of the Office of Manned Space Flight, testified that the chances of bringing back any deadly material from the Moon were “one in a hundred million” but insisted that “this represents a reasonable probability in the views of the bioscience community of contaminating the Earth and their feeling is that this is a real risk.”25

With the exception of Fulton, the subcommittee accepted Mueller’s reasoning, but an objection was raised about the timing of the construction. President Johnson had called for a slowdown in all federal construction to ease inflation, and it was suggested that NASA delay building the laboratory for a year. Mueller admitted that NASA should have identified the need for the laboratory in 1961 rather than 1964 and warned that it would be extremely difficult to get it built, tested, and operational in time for the first lunar landing even if construction began immediately.26 Mueller’s words should serve as a warning to those planning missions to Mars or other destinations. If NASA had listened more carefully to the advice it got from the National Academy of Sciences in 1960, it would have known that a receiving laboratory of some kind would be needed.

The House of Representatives passed a NASA authorization bill that included the entire 9.1 million dollars for the lab on May 3, 1966 by a vote of 349 to 10.

Although the PHS was creating huge problems for the MSC flight planners, it proved to be a powerful ally in the fight for congressional funding. The Senate’s Committee on Aeronautics and Space Science recommended only 8.1 million dollars for the laboratory and justified cutting a million on the grounds that it would “assure careful review and positive control of the planning for and construction of the facilities,” and NASA was advised to carefully review the need for “supporting space.”27 The full Senate passed NASA’s authorization bill on May 24, and the joint conference committee called to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill agreed on 8.1 million dollars. During another round of hearings, Dr. Mueller was asked about the possibility of contamination from the Moon. He testified they were “one in a billion, in the best estimate of the biological community.”28 Somehow the odds against moon germs had increased by a factor of ten since Mueller’s testimony at the March 30 hearings.

The compromise appropriation of 8.1 million dollars for the lab was approved by the House on August 18 and by the Senate on August 24. This congressional action came almost two months after the start of the fiscal year and delayed the start of construction significantly.


Building the Laboratory

While the fate of the receiving laboratory was being debated in Congress, the MSC technical committee continued to refine the plans for the facility. On May 9, 1966, NASA approved a plan to  establish a policy board and a program office to manage design and construction, with Joseph V. Piland as the program manager.

Site preparation, excavation, the pouring of the foundation, and erection of the lab’s steel framework began in June 1966. It would be three months before Congress finally appropriated the 8.1 million dollars for construction, so NASA used funds borrowed from other projects to finance the work.

Phase I construction was completed on schedule for $1,707,512 in spite of several technical problems such as the flooding of the construction site and a shortage of building material. The contract for Phase II construction, which included completion of the structure and the installation and testing of all laboratory equipment, was awarded to WNN Contractors (a combination of Warriors Constructors, Notkin, Inc., and National Construction)29 Piland’s staff had to find ways to cut costs to stay within the reduced funding approved by Congress without compromising the containment requirement or seriously limiting the research program. Any major redesign was out of the question because of the schedule deadlines. It was eventually decided to reduce the total area of the lab by 3,800 square feet, combine all operations in one building rather than having a separate facility for crew quarantine, and use one rather than two vacuum systems in the area where the sample containers would be opened.

Phase II construction was hindered by labor disputes, late delivery of laboratory equipment, and by a steady stream of NASA and congressional VIPs touring the facility. Many of the visitors gave the contract personnel suggestions on how to improve the facility, and this created so much confusion and delay that Piland had to instruct his staff to “remain out of the immediate areas of construction and refrain from any conversation with the construction personnel.”30 NASA extended the August 1 completion deadline, and construction was finally finished in late September 1967.

Monitoring the design and fabrication of the laboratory’s special equipment proved to be difficult because of the complicated nature of the instruments and the number of groups involved. The major problem was that the scientists who were developing the equipment were primarily concerned with quality regardless of cost or time, while the program office wanted the instruments finished on schedule and within budget. Piland repeatedly stressed the need for meeting deadlines, but most of the equipment was delivered late and exceeded the targeted costs. Although all of the laboratory’s special equipment was in place by late 1967, there were still a number of technical and mechanical problems to be solved before it could be considered operational.

Writing the procedures to be used to test the lunar samples for pathogenic material also proved to be much more difficult and time consuming than anticipated. The few people who actually believed moon germs might exist could not agree on how to find them. The Baylor University School of Medicine was given the task of drafting the bioprotocol, and Baylor alumnus Dr. Walter W. Kemmerer, who had been involved with planning the lab since its inception, monitored their efforts. The Public Health Service insisted on playing a major role in developing and testing the procedures and selecting the staff that would implement them. The PHS had to be handled with great sensitivity because it had the theoretical power to delay the entire lunar landing program by refusing to certify NASA’s biocontainment procedures.

Controlling the mountain of paper documentation being created by the contractors, support groups, MSC offices, and various other groups became a major problem. It was obviously essential for success that everyone work from the same set of blueprints or procedure handbooks, but this became increasingly difficult to do in an environment where documents were constantly being revised and changed. Piland’s program office established a unified management information system that issued weekly status reports to all the groups interested in the laboratory’s development and served as the official reference source for all questions.


Dealing with Interest Groups

The National Academy of Sciences’ Space Science Board considered itself NASA’s primary source of scientific advice, but there were a number of other groups that insisted on being heard. The “scientific community,” which was really a very loose confederation of disciplines that were often at odds with each other, had to be appeased to maintain their support for justifying Apollo to Congress and the public as something more than a Cold War publicity stunt. NASA invited scientists to submit research proposals for studies of the lunar material that Apollo missions would return and awarded contracts to 142 individuals who were designated principal investigators (PI). Each PI had very definite ideas on what type of material the astronauts should bring back and how it should be handled and processed by the staff of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Many of them tended to go around official channels and make their demands directly to MSC management.

It is probably an oversimplification to say that the LRL became a battleground in a war between geoscientists and biologists, but at times it must have appeared that way to many nonscientists in NASA. Each group was represented by a separate subcommittee within the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA) in NASA headquarters. The Planetary Biology Subcommittee insisted that the search for extraterrestrial life was the most important objective of the laboratory and should take priority over all other research projects. The Planetology Subcommittee, on the other hand, strongly disagreed and emphasized the importance of rapidly getting the lunar material to the principal investigators for geophysical testing. The biologists had a powerful ally in the Public Health Service, which was determined to exercise its statutory powers to the fullest.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Hugh L. Dryden attempted to deal with the demands of the Public Health Service by suggesting the establishment of an interdepartmental advisory committee composed of representatives from all of the agencies concerned with back contamination: the National Academy of Sciences, the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, the PHS, and NASA’s MSC and Ames Research Center. When the Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) was officially established on March 1, the word advisory was dropped from the title at the insistence of the regulatory agencies, which refused to be restricted to strictly an advisory role.31

The ICBC charter gave it broad but very vague responsibilities to protect the public’s health, agriculture, and other living resources while also protecting the integrity of the lunar samples without compromising the “operational aspects of the [Apollo] Program.”32 Dr. David J. Sencer, who had become the head of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, was named chairman.

NASA wanted to limit the ICBC to conducting periodic inspections of the LRL, reviewing plans, and offering advice. The regulatory agency members, however, insisted on exercising final approval authority over all phases of the program that might affect biocontainment. It took more than eighteen months for the two sides to reach a compromise. In an agreement signed on August 24, 1967, the regulatory agencies agreed not to take any actions that might have an effect on the lunar program (such as refusing to let the astronauts back in the country) without the “unanimous recommendation of the agencies represented on the Committee.”33 Since NASA was a member, no actions could be taken without its approval. NASA did have to agree that it would not take any actions that might compromise containment without first consulting with the ICBC unless such actions were considered necessary for the safe conduct of the mission. NASA could have stretched this clause to cover almost anything it wanted to do during the mission to protect the crew or the spacecraft. The ICBC, like the quarantine requirement itself, was a constant but unavoidable annoyance for NASA management. Concentrating all the external interest groups into one committee did benefit NASA by simplifying the problems of communication and coordination and providing a forum where the members could present their views, vent their frustrations with NASA, and occasionally argue among themselves about what constituted an acceptable defense against potential contamination of the Earth.

While NASA officials were trying to deal with the various external groups interested in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, they also had to address internal organizational and management problems. A December 1966 review of the lab concluded that the facility was hindered by inadequate staffing and budget.34 A report submitted on December 12 by Dr. Grace Briggs Phillips, the ICBC’s onsite representative and Public Health Service liaison to the LRL Program Office, was even more critical. Phillips, a recognized expert on contamination control procedures, pointed out that the LRL “has no management structure, no director and very little staff” and identified seventeen items requiring immediate attention to insure that the facility would be ready to support the first Apollo landing mission.35

NASA moved to improve its relations with the “scientific community” and focus responsibility for getting the lab ready by establishing a Science and Applications Directorate (S&AD) at the Manned Spacecraft Center on January 10, 1967. Dr. Wilmot Norton Hess was named to head the new organization on February 17, 1967. His efforts to get the scientists and engineers to respect each other’s views and work together were complicated by the continuing power struggle at NASA headquarters for control over science in the Apollo Program. Hess also discovered that he had a rival in Houston for control over operation of the LRL. Dr. Charles A. Berry, who enjoyed and promoted his national reputation as “the astronauts’ personal physician,” headed the Medical Research and Operations Directorate (MR&OD) at MSC and was “responsible for all efforts at MSC to prevent back contamination as a result of lunar surface missions.”36 Neither Hess’s scientists nor Berry’s physicians had much real power in the engineer-dominated MSC organization, which may have made their struggle for what little was available even more bitter and protracted. Each had the support of allies in outside groups, with the “rock scientists” supporting Hess and the biologists and PHS supporting Berry. Hess would eventually win the battle for control of the LRL because few people believed that quarantine was more important than scientific research on lunar samples.37

Those who believed that the primary mission of the LRL should be biocontainment and testing refused to allow Hess’s scientists to win easily. The minutes of every ICBC meeting include complaints that NASA management was not taking biocontainment seriously, and there were protracted arguments over how much lunar material should be allocated to testing for lunar organisms and the kinds of tests that should be conducted. The biologists disagreed even among themselves over whether the laboratory should test for any known terrestrial organism or just those that were infectious. When the Baylor College of Medicine submitted a 554-page draft bioprotocol on June 1, 1967, many of the principal investigators who were anxiously awaiting the chance to study lunar samples objected that it “wasted” too much of the precious material.38 The ICBC agreed to try to develop a protocol that would use a minimum of material, but the argument over how much that minimum should be continued well into 1969.

In late July 1967 Dr. Persa Raymond Bell became manager of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. It quickly became obvious that he was a poor choice for a job that required both administrative ability and tact. He antagonized the biomedical staff by making it very clear that he considered quarantine a waste of time and money and a hindrance to the “important work” of sample analysis. Relations between Dr. Bell and Dr. Kemmerer, who continued to have responsibility for planning and implementing the quarantine and containment program, deteriorated rapidly, and soon the two men stopped speaking to each other almost entirely. Bell also refused to deal with administrative matters and spent the majority of his time trying to build the “perfect” low-level radiation counting laboratory.39 In an effort to settle their jurisdictional dispute, Dr. Hess and Dr. Berry signed a memorandum of understanding on October 13, 1967. This peace treaty confirmed that Bell and his boss Hess had “operational control” of the LRL, but also made Kemmerer the quarantine control officer with the authority to take “any appropriate action” in the event that a situation developed that might “seriously jeopardize the public safety.”40


The Race to Get Ready

In 1968 NASA management became increasingly concerned that all of this bickering might actually force a delay in the scheduled launch of the first lunar landing mission. The first simulations of mission operations in the laboratory were conducted from October 22 to 31 and clearly showed that the LRL was far from being operational. Practice sessions in the vacuum, physical-chemical, and biology laboratories disclosed numerous problems with both the equipment and the staff. There were many failures in the glove system that would have resulted in breaks in containment under real conditions, and most operations took considerably longer than anticipated. Working behind a strict biobarrier proved to be even more difficult than expected.41

The director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, Dr. Gilruth, was well aware that the lab had serious technical and management problems, and he acted quickly to correct them. He appointed John D. Hodge to head an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) Committee to conduct a “rigorous review” of the LRL. The report that Hodge submitted to Gilruth in December identified 140 deficiencies that would have to be corrected before the first landing attempt could be made and expressed grave concern that the LRL could be operational in time for the July 1969 target date. Hodge characterized the management of the LRL as “generally sloppy” and recommended that Bell be replaced because he was not exercising control over planning and operations. He was impressed with the detailed bioprotocol but considered the vague plans the scientists had developed for handling samples indicative of a “lack of professional discipline” bordering on anarchy.42

Bell responded that the geoscientists needed procedures that would be flexible because nobody really knew what problems or opportunities would be encountered working with lunar material. A detailed timeline would be impossible to follow and would restrict the scientists’ freedom of operations. The LRL was the first major joint effort between scientists and engineers at MSC, and the ORI clearly showed a basic difference in assumptions and attitudes between the two groups that made it difficult for either side to really understand the other’s position.

Gilruth was a consummate engineer and administrator, and he agreed with Hodge that the laboratory needed a much more disciplined management. On December 6, 1968, he established a Change Control Board (CCB) to review all proposed modifications to the LRL and determine their impact on cost and schedules. Use of a Change Control Board or Panel was common MSC practice to keep the design and construction of complicated systems such as the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft on schedule. In his desire to make the receiving laboratory as scientifically perfect as possible, Bell had authorized numerous changes that produced delays and cost overruns. Several laboratories had been torn up just as they neared completion so that a newer or more sophisticated piece of equipment could be installed. The LRL-CCB was directed to put a stop to all the “nice-to-have” modifications and defer all “non-mandatory changes.”43

Failure of the LRL to pass its inspection also convinced Gilruth that Dr. Bell was not providing the necessary administrative control, and he appointed R. Bryan Erb as assistant manager for the LRL in mid-December. Gilruth made it clear that Erb had total responsibility for all administrative matters and told Bell to confine himself to technical problems. Erb characterized Bell as the “worst administrator I’ve ever seen” and worked closely with Dr. Kemmerer and the biomedical personnel to repair the lines of communication that Bell had virtually destroyed.44

The subject of quarantine received very little public interest until a series of articles on the LRL appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Time in late 1968. The articles all stressed that back contamination was highly unlikely, but MSC held a press conference to head off any public scare. Both Dr. Hess and Dr. Kemmerer assured the press that NASA was taking every precaution to prevent back contamination and that the odds against biological contamination from the Moon were tremendous. When asked what MSC would do if something turned up in the lunar material, Kemmerer jokingly replied “panic” but quickly added that quarantine would be extended and NASA would take action to isolate the organism and develop defenses against it. No detailed emergency procedures were written because of the number of situations that could conceivably have developed, but in the unlikely event of a true biological catastrophe, the LRL would have been sealed by armed guards and perhaps even buried beneath dirt and concrete. Technicians who would work in the laboratory were required to sign an agreement that they would not try to break out if ordered into quarantine as a result of coming in contact with lunar material and that next of kin would not claim bodies in the event of death.45

Simulations conducted February 17–21, 1969, were marked by numerous delays and excessive failures in the vacuum glove boxes where samples would be handled.46 A “full-scale” simulation was held March 3–29, 1969, and proved to be another disaster. The ICBC met at MSC on March 28–29 to review the results and expressed “serious concern that the laboratory would not be scientifically nor physically ready for the lunar mission without rather drastic changes.”47 The members from regulatory agencies were appalled at the number of equipment failures that, under real conditions, would have exposed almost everyone working in the laboratory and forced all of them into quarantine. None of the laboratories had been able to complete their operations without at least one break in containment.

refer to caption

A recovery team retrieve the crew of Apollo 11 following splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. All involved are wearing biological isolation garments to contain possible germs.

Getting the crew and samples from the prime recovery area in the Pacific Ocean to any laboratory continued to be a major subject of controversy between NASA and the ICBC. NASA planned to pick the astronauts up by helicopter and fly them to the prime recovery ship, where they would be placed into a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), a highly modified 18,700-pound Airstream travel trailer that could isolate six people for ten days. The ship would sail to Pearl Harbor, where the MQF could be put on an aircraft, flown to Houston, and then be trucked to the LRL. These procedures were practiced during the Apollo 9 mission in March 1969. Some members of the ICBC continued to be concerned that organisms might escape into the ocean while the crew transferred from their spacecraft to the helicopter and renewed their earlier demands that the spacecraft be recovered unopened and that biological filters be installed on it to prevent escape of organisms during post-landing venting. Deke Slayton, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts who had been made director of flight crew operations at MSC, refused to adopt any procedures that would risk crew safety. His recovery experts pointed out that the spacecraft was too heavy to lift with the crew inside and insisted that in-flight procedures would minimize the amount of lunar dust that might escape the command module by the time it splashed down.

The representative from the National Academy of Sciences on the ICBC, Dr. Wolf Vishniac, insisted that opening the spacecraft and venting it after splashdown made the rest of the elaborate quarantine program pointless. Vishniac, however, realized that he was fighting a losing battle on recovery procedures and noted that

The Apollo Program is moving at a pace which we [the ICBC] can not stop. It is equally clear that this irresistible progress is being used to brush aside the inconvenient restraints which the Interagency Committee has considered to be an essential part of the Quarantine Program.”48

Although it was obvious to everyone that NASA would not compromise mission requirements to meet quarantine requirements, ICBC Chairman Dr. Sencer was determined to at least take a stand for the record. He sent a strong protest to NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine on April 7, asserting that the “post-landing venting and egress plan [allowing the crew to climb out and be flown to the recovery aircraft carrier] violates the concept of containment.” He complained that NASA had not satisfactorily responded to the ICBC’s recommendations and that NASA should “recognize the necessity for protecting our environment.”49 Sencer did not want to be remembered as the man who prevented America from reaching the Moon by the end of the decade, and he agreed to accept the NASA recovery plans for the first mission because the “theoretical risk of contamination of the environment is acceptable if strict ‘housekeeping’ procedures are written for and implemented by the crew.” He did insist that all containment procedures “must be rigidly and professionally enforced.”50

Sencer bowed to the inevitable and backed down gracefully on the recovery procedures, but he took a hard line on certifying the LRL as a containment facility in a second letter he sent to Paine on April 7. Sencer reviewed the disappointing results of the March simulations and stated “it is our considered judgment that this laboratory can not be certified by the Regulatory Agencies unless rather drastic changes are made in the priority of activities and operations of the laboratory.” Sencer wanted NASA to commit to giving priority to containment and biotesting rather than scientific analysis of samples and charged that LRL “personnel are not adequately trained nor is there a scientific discipline apparent in the overall operation.” He listed twenty-two actions that would have to be taken before the LRL could be certified as a containment facility.51

With the launch of the first landing mission little more than three months away, NASA management reacted quickly to Sencer’s criticism. MSC Director Gilruth assigned one of his most trusted assistants, Richard S. Johnston, the job of getting the LRL certified. Johnston, an engineer, brought in several engineers with mission planning experience to complete the task of writing laboratory procedures and to incorporate ICBC recommendations into the flight plans and lunar surface procedures as much as possible. He was also given the difficult task of diplomatically convincing the ICBC that NASA was taking its recommendations seriously and persuading Slayton’s recovery people to be more cooperative.

Johnston made a presentation on revised housekeeping procedures planned for Apollo 11 at the ICBC meeting held at Brooks Air Force Base Aerospace Medical Facility on May 2, 1969. Brooks was one of the potential “fallback sites” if the LRL was not ready by launch date. Johnston explained the astronauts would brush off as much of the loose material from their spacesuits as possible before they reentered the lunar module (LM) and would jettison any equipment that had been on the lunar surface that did not have to be returned to Earth. This would cut down the number of potential sources of contamination. Before docking with the command module circling in lunar orbit, the two crewmen who had been on the surface would clean the inside of the LM with a vacuum brush to reduce the amount of loose material that might otherwise be carried into the command module. During the transfer of the crew and the sealed sample return containers full of lunar material, pressure in the command module would be kept higher than the pressure in the lunar module to prevent any airborne particles from drifting into it. During the three-day trip home, the interior of the spacecraft would be vacuumed several times to remove any lunar dust that had managed to slip into it, and the atmosphere would be constantly circulated through a series of lithium hydroxide filters that studies showed would trap any bacterial-size particles. He insisted that these procedures would result in a “clean” spacecraft that would make post-landing filters unnecessary and allow opening the hatch without posing a threat to the environment.

Slayton was adamant that filtering the exhaust from the command module as it bobbed on the surface would raise the level of carbon dioxide to dangerous levels and make the interior too hot for the crew to tolerate in less than ten to twelve minutes. The ICBC members agreed to waive the requirement for filters but were still reluctant to allow the crew to leave the spacecraft and potentially spread germs everywhere. Slayton refused to force his astronauts to take the risk of being hoisted aboard ship but did agree to an earlier proposal that they put on biological isolation garments (BIGs) before they exited the spacecraft. Johnston assured the ICBC members that the filters in the respirators of the BIGs had an efficiency of 99.98 percent for 0.3-micron-sized particles and should trap any organisms they exhaled. As an extra precaution, the recovery swimmers helping the crew would wear BIGs designed to filter all incoming air, and the life rafts and the area around the hatch would be sprayed with a strong acid to kill any organisms that might have escaped while the hatch was open. The helicopter recovery procedures were finally approved by the ICBC in a telephone conference on May 19, 1969.

Several weeks earlier, the ICBC proposed a plan for certifying the LRL that called for a team headed by Dr. Phillips to inspect the facility and submit a report of findings. NASA would then submit a certification to the ICBC that it had made any recommended changes, and the regulatory agency members would sign that certification. John Hodge had suggested testing the ability of the lab to actually contain infectious agents by using Q Fever, a nonlethal agent that incapacitates people for several days. MSC management strongly objected to the plan, and the ICBC recommended against using “high hazard agents.”52 Even the regulatory members of the ICBC did not want to take the risk of incapacitating most of Houston to test the integrity of a facility that would probably never have to contain any lunar organisms.

No live agents would be used to test the laboratory’s ability to contain organisms, and no inspections would be done to verify that NASA had actually made the changes requested. The Phillips committee conducted its inspection on May 26–28 and submitted its report to the ICBC on June 5, 1969.53 Area test directors were made responsible for implementing the recommendations and had to sign a certificate of test area readiness stating that each laboratory was “in a state of readiness to conduct the Apollo 11 mission.” The last of these certificates, which were forwarded to the ICBC for concurrence, was not officially signed until less than 24 hours before Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific.54


Putting the LRL to Work

Johnston notified Gilruth on July 2 that the LRL would be operational in time to support Apollo 11, and six days later the laboratory went on mission status. The area around the facility was roped off, and the only entrance was placed under twenty-four-hour armed guard. Strict biological containment procedures were followed, and only authorized personnel were allowed into the lab. On July 20, the day before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the biomedical technicians and doctors entered quarantine to await the return of the crew.

The first lunar landing was accomplished on July 21, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent almost three hours on the surface. In addition to raising the flag, speaking to President Nixon, and taking hundreds of photographs, they managed to collect approximately thirty-three pounds of material that they sealed in two sample return containers and transferred into the lunar module. When the two crewmen reentered the lunar modular and removed their helmets, they were exposed directly to lunar material that adhered to their suits and equipment. Armstrong reported that the grayish-black dust had the faint odor of wet gunpowder.55 After lifting off from the surface, the crew followed the housekeeping procedures approved by the ICBC and tested on the Apollo 10 mission two months earlier, even though they noticed very little loose material in the lunar module. Rendezvous with the waiting command module was accomplished on schedule, and Apollo 11 blasted out of lunar orbit just before midnight (EDT) on July 22, 1969. As the spacecraft swung out from behind the Moon and reestablished communications with Houston, Armstrong radioed, “Time to open up the LRL doors, Charlie.” Capsule Communicator Charlie Duke responded, “Roger, we got you coming home. It [the LRL] is well stocked.”56

The Apollo spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific at 12:48 p.m. (EDT) on July 24 less than thirteen miles from the prime recovery ship USS Hornet. Within half an hour swimmers had attached a flotation collar around the command module and passed the BIGs inside to the crew. They sprayed betadine around the postlanding vents and the hatch to kill any organisms that might have escaped. When the crew climbed out into the waiting life raft, they were sprayed with sodium hypochlorite before being hoisted aboard the recovery helicopter for the short ride back to the aircraft carrier. The raft was then sprayed and sunk along with the swimmers’ BIGs and the disinfectant containers. The helicopter crew kept oxygen masks on at all times to prevent them from inhaling any germs the astronauts might exhale, and the helicopter was later disinfected with Formalin.

Once on the hanger deck of the Hornet, the astronauts were hustled into the mobile quarantine facility as the crew and a television audience of millions looked on. As a final precaution, the path between the helicopter and the MQF was sprayed with glutaraldehyde while the television commentators assured the viewers that the chances against back contamination were tremendous and NASA was only taking reasonable precautions. Unfortunately for NASA’s public relations staff, Michael Crichton’s novel about life on Earth being nearly wiped out by germs from space was on the bestseller list, and thousands of people had written NASA about its plans to protect them against moon germs.57 After the crew was safely inside the airtight MQF and the hanger deck was again disinfected, President Nixon was allowed to step up to the window of the converted travel trailer and congratulate the astronauts on their historic achievement. During the transfer, Nixon had been kept far away from the hanger deck, and a helicopter was waiting to rush him off the ship if any leak was detected in the MQF. A second MQF was on the Hornet to isolate any ships crew who might be exposed directly to the astronauts or the spacecraft. A major break in containment would have required the Hornet to remain at sea for the entire quarantine period.

In general, the recovery procedures went according to the detailed plan spelled out in the back contamination mission rules, although they took longer than anticipated. The ICBC was satisfied that no breaks in containment had occurred.58 The BIGs proved to be extremely hot and uncomfortable, and the presence of saltwater inside them when the crew took them off suggests that they leaked.59 After all the dignitaries had left the hanger deck, the samples were removed from the command module, sterilized in the MQF, and flown back to the LRL. The samples reached the lab on July 25, 1969. Both the MQF and the command module were flown back to the LRL without incident. Fortunately, the contingency plans for isolating the area around any crash site if one of the planes went down over land did not have to be implemented.

The LRL was declared an official quarantine area by the medical officer of Harris County, Texas (site of MSC), on July 24, and a notice appeared in the Federal Register the next day proclaiming that a state of quarantine would exist from 0100 July 21 to at least 0100 on August 11, 1969, to prevent contamination of Earth by extraterrestrial life. The crew and a doctor and technician who had shared the MQF with them reached the LRL around 3 a.m. on July 27. If all biological testing proved negative, the crew would be released twenty-one days after their initial exposure to lunar material in the LM. The decision to release them or extend the quarantine would be made jointly by the NASA administrator and the regulatory agency members of the ICBC.

The LRL functioned well as a containment facility, although one story insists that roaches were seen leaving and reentering the building. There were two breaks in containment that required the quarantine of six laboratory personnel, and all operations took considerably longer than anticipated because of the difficulty of working inside vacuum boxes and behind a biobarrier. No pathogenic material was found in any of the samples, and the ICBC agreed to the release of the crew on August 11. Distribution of samples to the eagerly awaiting principal investigators began on September 12, 1969. The ICBC waived the requirement for the crew of Apollo 12 to wear BIGs, and they wore regular flight suits and full respirators for their trip between the command module and the MQF. All crew quarantine requirements were waived after the flight of Apollo 14. Scientists who insisted that the whole quarantine program was a waste of time and money were surprised and perhaps chagrined when they discovered living earthborn bacteria inside the camera housing of the Surveyor III spacecraft, which was brought back by the crew of Apollo 12 and tested in the LRL. Some technician had breathed on the camera insulation during pre-launch processing, and the bacteria had survived the harsh lunar environment for three years. This not only renewed the debate about the possibility of life in the universe but also raised questions about the effectiveness of the sterilization procedures used on both U.S. and Russian unmanned spacecraft sent to Mars and Venus.

It is still debatable whether the LRL could have really contained deadly moon germs if any had existed.60 It is certain, however, that building and operating it proved to be much more difficult than anyone imagined. The lunar samples were moved to a new facility at MSC in 1979, and the old LRL is now used primarily for offices and support laboratoreis. Visitors to Space Center Houston, a nongovernment museum operated on the grounds of what is now the Johnson Space Center, can view exhibits of the equipment used in the LRL and touch a piece of the Moon worn smooth by millions of exploratory touches.

Christopher Kraft, the personification for most television viewers of all the NASA flight controllers, believes that “a few scientists crying wolf” forced NASA to spend millions on a quarantine program that was “stupid, disgusting and politically mandatory . . . we went along with the game because we had to . . . [H]ysteria cows common sense every time.”61

The possibility of life on the Moon may have been “far-fetched” as Kraft contends, but the possibility of life on Mars or even in some comet appears to be much higher, and there will certainly be demands for stringent quarantine of any samples returned from those celestial bodies. NASA launched the Stardust spacecraft on February 7, 1999, on a mission to intercept the comet Wild 2 in 2004 and collect dust from its nucleus. Stardust will return to Earth in 2006 and drop the samples it collects in a parachute-equipped capsule that will be snagged by an aircraft high over Nevada. It is a scenario that is eerily similar to the science fiction thriller The Andromeda Strain and is sure to regenerate the debate about protecting Earth. On August 8, 2001, NASA launched a spacecraft called Genesis that that will gather interstellar matter and return it to Earth in 2004. There will likely be numerous environmental protection groups and other parties that will insist on playing a role in the design, construction, and operation of any laboratory that receives samples from comets or Mars. Getting such a facility ready to protect Earth and do meaningful research on samples will probably make the Lunar Receiving Lab development look simple by comparison. The records from that effort and the lessons learned that they document will certainly improve the chances that NASA can succeed and protect us all.

Kent Carter is regional administrator of the National Archives and Records Administration–Southwest Region in Forth Worth, Texas. He has been with NARA since 1973, and his first job was with NASA working for the Science and Applications Directorate in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.


1. The best account of the entire Apollo science program and the handling of lunar samples is in William D. Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions (NASA SP-4214, 1989). For a more humorous look at the quarantine program, see Brian Duff, “The Great Lunar Quarantine: Welcome Back To Earth: Now Get In Your Trailer,” Air and Space (February/March 1994): 38–43. Duff was the former head of the Public Affairs Office at the Johnson Space Center.

2. The first source of documents to check is the Johnson Space Flight Center (JSC) History Office Apollo Collection (HOAC), Houston, TX, which has a computer finding aid that lists hundreds of items relating to the LRL. The Office of the Curator at JSC has an extensive collection of documents. More than 8,600 cubic feet of records have been transferred from NASA to the National Archives–Southwest Region, Fort Worth, TX, and are part of Record Group 255 (hereinafter RG 255, NARA–SW). An inventory of these records is available at the NASA history office web site ( or from NARA–Southwest Region.

3. Welch Everman, Cult Science Fiction Films (1995), and David Miller, They Came From Outer Space (1996), are not very scholarly studies of science fiction film, but they have some great artwork and movie posters. In the classic film War of the Worlds (Paramount, 1953), terrestrial bacteria save Earth by killing Martian invaders who had no immunity to our common colds.

4. Exobiology Committee Minutes of February 20, 1960, cited in Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before, p. 45. The Report of the Iowa City Summer Conference, June, 1962, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, also cites these earlier minutes. Copies of this report are in ASPO General Subject Files, entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW, and in the records maintained at JSC.

5. See Courtney G. Brooks, Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (NASA SP-4205, 1979), p. 204; also reported in the Washington Post, Aug. 18, 1962. See Donald A. Beattie, Taking Science to the Moon: Lunar Experiments and the Apollo Program (2001) for a good summary of the conference held by the NAS at Iowa State University in Ames, IA, in 1962. The proceedings of the Iowa City Summer Conference are in the reference library maintained by the Office of the Curator (SN2), JSC, in Houston.

6. U.S. Congress, 88th Cong, 1st sess., Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for FY64. Part 1: Scientific and Technical Programs, S. 1245, April 1963, pp. 598–600.

7. Ibid. p. 600.

8. Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1963.

9. Memo, John Eggleston to Max Faget, Feb. 25, 1964, HOAC item APO 0027743, JSC; also cited in Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before, p. 41, and in Judy Alton, “25 Years of Curating Moon Rocks,” unpubl. ms., Office of the Curator (SN2), JSC.

10. Aleck C. Bond, memo of Apr. 14, 1964; also HOAC item APO 0027744, JSC, and entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW.

11. “Final Report of the Conference on Back Contamination, July 29–30, 1964,” published by the National Academy of Sciences. A copy of the report is also in HOAC item APO 0027746, JSC, and entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW.

12. “Presentation to the Pre-Proposal Conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center, June 2, 1966,” HOAC item APO 0027753, JSC; memo of 10-23-64, entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW.

13. “Concepts, Functional Requirements, Specifications, and Recommended Plan of Operation for the Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory.” Final report is HOAC item APO 0027770, JSC, and entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW.

14. “Report of the Planetology Subcommittee, October 26, 1964,” p. 4, entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW.

15. 7 CFR chap. 3, Agriculture, and 9 CFR, chap. 1, Animals and Animal Products.

16. Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956, 70 Stat. L. 1119, 16 U.S.C. 742A.

17. Public Law 410, Public Health Services Act, 78th Congress.

18. Orr E. Reynolds, memo Summary of Meeting between Representatives from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Public Health Service, July 31, 1965, p. 2, RG 255, NARA–SW; also in HOAC item APO 0027784, JSC.

19. Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before, p. 47. Notes on these meetings and exchanges with the PHS are in entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW. Kemmerer to record, Sept. 27, 1967. The HOAC has a number of exchanges between NASA and PHS during this period.

20. Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before, p. 47.

21. U.S. Congress, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., Hearings . . . NASA FY1967 Authorization, H.R. 12718, p. 248.

22. Ibid. p. 271; see also p. 418.

23. Ibid. p. 483

24. The committee was headed by Col. John E. Pickering, special assistant to the director of space medicine in OSSA, and issued its report on March 21, 1966.

25. Ibid. p. 1231.

26. Ibid. p. 1235.

27. “Statement on the Containment of Lunar Samples, Astronauts, and Support Personnel,” in U.S. Congress, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for FY67, S. 2909, Feb.–March 1966, p. 81. The Senate committee’s report was issued on May 23, 1966.

28.U.S. Congress, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., House Subcommittee on Independent Offices of the Committee on Appropriations, Hearings . . . on NASA FY 1967 Appropriation HR 14921, 1966, p. 1502.

29. Operational Readiness Inspection Briefing, MSC, February 1968, p. 9, RG 255, NARA–SW. This was a “Cost-Plus-Incentive Fee” contract estimated at $4,657.000.

30. Joseph Piland, memo to the record, “Operations/Construction Interface,” July 21, 1967, RG 255, NARA–SW.

31. HOAC, James Webb memo 11-20-65, item APO 0027805, JSC; George Low memo 1-31-66, item APO 0027830; Gen. Frank A. Bogart memo 2-28-66, APO item 0027836.

32. Charter of the ICBC, RG 255, NARA–SW.

33. Interagency Agreement between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the Department of the Interior, and the National Academy of Sciences on the Protection of the Earth’s Biosphere from Lunar Sources of Contamination, RG 255, NARA–SW. Also in HOAC item APO 0028103, JSC.

34. Richard J. Allenby to Dr. Homer E. Newell, “Lunar Receiving Laboratory Problems,” Dec. 19, 1966, RG 255, NARA–SW.

35. Status Report on the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, Grace Briggs Phillips to Bogart, Dec. 13, 1966, RG 255, NARA–SW. Also in HOAC, item APO 0027992, JSC.

36. MSC Instruction 8030.1, Jan. 9, 1967, RG 255, NARA–SW. Also in HOAC item APO 0028010, JSC.

37. Berry complained in a memo to the S&AD director that his staff ”view the quarantine as an imposed operation to be done the easiest way possible while hoping it will go away.” Charles Berry to TA, Jan. 9, 1968, RG 255, NARA–SW.

38.The 554-page draft was submitted to NASA by the Baylor College of Medicine on June 1, 1967.

39. Interview by author with R. Bryan Erb, manager of the Lunar Receiving Lab, Aug. 12, 1969.

40. “Memorandum of Understanding on the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, Oct. 13, 1967, RG 255, NARA–SW; also in HOAC item APO 0028119, JSC.

41. Operational Readiness Inspection, Sept. 12, 1968, HOAC, APO item 0028180, JSC. The LSAPT and LSPET members participated in these simulations and reported eighty-two major and minor faults.

42. Interview by author with John D. Hodge at the Transportation Systems Center, Cambridge, MA, Aug. 25, 1971.

43. Robert Gilruth to Wilmot Hess, Dec. 6, 1968, RG 255, NARA–SW.

44. These weekly status reports are probably the best source of information about development of the LRL, RG 255, NARA–SW.

45. Transcript of press conference conducted at MSC, Dec. 6, 1968, RG 255, NARA–SW. Erb interview.

46. Minutes of ICBC meeting at MSC, Mar. 28–29, 1969, RG 255, NARA–SW.

47. Ibid.

48. Wolf Vishniac to Gilruth, Mar. 5, 1969, RG 255, NARA–SW.

49.David J. Sencer to Dr. Thomas O. Paine, Apr. 7, 1969, RG 255, NARA–SW; also in HOAC APO item 0028285, JSC.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. Gilruth to George Mueller, Apr. 29, 1968, RG 255, NARA–SW. Hodge interview.

53. Minutes of ICBC meeting held June 5, 1969, RG 255, NARA–SW; also in HOAC APO item 0028373, JSC.

54. Lunar Receiving Laboratory Certification Documents, MSC, Houston, TX, July 23, 1969, RG 255, NARA–SW.

55.Interview by author with Neil Armstrong at University of Cincinnati, Oct. 21, 1971.

56. Richard S. Lewis, Appointment on the Moon (1970), p. 538. All 45,000 pages of the air-to-ground transcripts from flights MR3 to Apollo 17 have been reproduced by the JSC History Office on a set of two CD-ROMs that is fully searchable with Adobe Acrobat. This quote is on page 1 of tape 444 at 7/22/69, GET 135: 33.

57. See Duff, “The Great Lunar Quarantine,” p. 41. The movie version of The Andromeda Strain was not in theaters until after quarantine requirements for the Apollo crews had ended.

58. MSC 03201, entry 205T5, RG 255, NARA–SW. The mission rules authorized the recovery team leader to take any action necessary to protect the safety of the crew but required him to consult with Dr. Berry on any actions that might affect quarantine. A recovery surgeon was on the Hornet to evaluate all crew illness and injury.

59. The ICBC agreed to discontinue use of the BIGs after Apollo 11, and the crew of Apollo 12 only had to wear face-mask respirators.

60.Geologist Gerald Wasserburg is quoted as calling quarantine a “fraud” in Duff, “The Great Lunar Quarantine,” p. 40.

61.Chris Kraft, Flight: My Life in Mission Control (2001), pp. 311–312.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.