Lessons Learned from the Quarantine of Apollo Lunar Samples
The martian samples will not be the first extraterrestrial materials that NASA has quarantined. A need was seen to quarantine the lunar samples collected by the Apollo astronauts beginning in 1969, as well as the astronauts themselves, and a quarantine program and quarantine facility (the Lunar Receiving Laboratory; LRL) were set up for that purpose. Much valuable experience was gained during the lunar quarantine, and it is important for the Mars quarantine program to profit from this history wherever it can.
A brief chronology of events relating to quarantine and handling (which are inextricably mingled) of the lunar samples is given in Appendix B. COMPLEX draws the following conclusions from this history.
Many factors that strongly shaped the Apollo quarantine experience will be absent from Mars sample return missions and quarantine. It will not be necessary to worry about ensuring the safety of astronauts; astronauts as vehicles for organisms; the need to introduce the concept of planetary protection to NASA; lack of experience with extraterrestrial samples; the constraint of President Kennedy’s “end of this decade” time scale; or handling the very large amounts of sample material that were collected on the moon. Also missing will be the “crash program” resources and mentality that Apollo enjoyed.
The preliminary examination, curation, and distribution for study of lunar samples from the LRL were generally successful. A community of outside investigators had been selected and funded by the time the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, and they had had some time to equip their laboratories and simulate analyses of lunar samples. Real lunar samples were distributed to them a few weeks after Apollo 11 (and subsequent missions) returned to Earth. The samples were allocated in a reasonably rational way, and with some exceptions they were protected from serious contamination.
On the other hand, the quarantine program would have to be judged a failure. It greatly complicated sample processing, yet if lunar material had contained lethal microorganisms Earth would have been infected in two places: the Pacific Ocean, and Houston, Texas.
NASA, for the most part, made the right decisions and acted in a timely way in preparing for the receipt of lunar samples in Houston. The agency made very extensive use of external panels of experts for scientific advice. The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) was unstinting in its support of the planned scientific studies. NASA accepted the need for planetary protection measures as soon as external advice drew attention to it, and factored it
into the program. In the end NASA gave a higher priority to successful execution of the missions, and the welfare of astronaut crews, than to planetary protection; but that was the imperative that had been handed to NASA.
The difficulties that were encountered can be ascribed mostly to some poor managerial choices made by NASA, the small amount of time available to set up and test a new and unprecedented enterprise, and a certain amount of internecine warfare that developed (Headquarters versus the Manned Spacecraft Center, Office of Space Science and Applications versus Office of Manned Space Flight, physical science versus biology).
Reduced to the simplest terms, 2 years were spent planning LRL (only the last year of which included planning for a quarantine), 1 year was spent building the facility, and after that 2 more years were available for staffing and training of personnel before the first samples arrived. There is widespread agreement that this was not enough time to do the job right. This experience with scheduling translates fairly straightforwardly to the time line for the Mars Quarantine Facility (Chapter 6).
The momentum of Apollo, and the goal set by President Kennedy, forced the Interagency Committee on Back Contamination to accept halfway measures in enforcing planetary protection. The reentry and splashdown procedures implemented had the potential for infecting the atmosphere and ocean. These compromises did not escape the notice of personnel in the LRL quarantine facility (6, below). In the absence of a Cold War imperative and concern for the welfare of astronauts, and with the benefit of Apollo experience, it should be possible to design and enforce a truly rigorous quarantine program. The management structure of the Mars sample program should not permit planetary protection to be overruled for reasons of operational expediency.
Many of the scientists (especially physical scientists) and technical staff of LRL were poorly motivated to endure the many inconveniences of quarantine. It was obvious to them from first principles that the Moon is a hostile, sterile place, and the risk of lunar pathogens there is negligible. In addition, the obvious gaps in planetary protection associated with return of the Apollo spacecraft to the Pacific Ocean made security in Houston seem less than compelling. Consequently, there were many breaches of quarantine security in LRL that went unreported.
It is essential that quarantine personnel be motivated to observe quarantine. It is not enough to simply order them to do so. This is especially true in a situation where (unlike the case at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) the probability that infectious organisms are present is small. Essential ingredients of motivation are an airtight, uncompromised quarantine plan, and effective and complete communication of the quarantine concept to all parties.
Many of the worst problems encountered in LRL, affecting both sample processing and quarantine, stemmed from the F-201 vacuum chamber and its glove ports. The concept of a vacuum glove box was a very novel and ambitious one that, in the end, came to grief. The lesson for the Mars Quarantine Facility is to strive for simplicity. The requirements of quarantine and chemical cleanliness already dictate a fairly complex system; the Apollo lesson is, don’t complicate the system beyond that point unless the reasons for doing so are very compelling. There were fairly good reasons for wanting to maintain a vacuum environment for the lunar samples—the intellectual climate of the time, which is largely forgotten now, said we have no idea what kind of material the lunar samples will turn out to be—but in the end maintaining the lunar samples in a vacuum did no particular good.
The analogous potential complication for the Mars Quarantine Facility is storing and handling the samples at Mars (subfreezing) temperatures. While storing samples at low temperatures in the quarantine facility would probably be straightforward, attempting to handle and process them at low temperatures would greatly complicate the facility’s design and operating procedures. Although reasons can be found for keeping the Mars samples at low temperatures, none are compelling enough to justify the added difficulties and risks to the quarantine facility. An effort to reproduce the martian environment (gas composition, pressure) in the facility is probably also not justified, though to the maximum extent feasible the samples should be stored and handled in an inert atmosphere such as purified dry nitrogen gas (or helium or argon).
Recommendation. It is essential that the design for the Mars Quarantine Facility be kept as simple as possible, consistent with the facility’s mission of protecting Earth’s environment and the samples. Although it may be feasible to store the samples at low temperatures, an effort to try to maintain a Mars environment (temperature, pressure) during sample handling would complicate the design and operation of the facility to a very large degree, probably unnecessarily, and it should not be attempted for the first Mars sample return.
LRL profited greatly from the advice and advocacy of panels of outside experts. The Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (LSAPT) won the confidence of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center’s director to such an extent that its recommendations were almost always implemented.
Panels of this sort are extremely important (Chapter 6), but the question of how much power to invest them with is a complicated one. Their effectiveness depends on particular personalities that might be on the panel. LSAPT was only one example, and its membership included some exceptional people; for this reason it is probably not safe to generalize about powerful advisory panels from the Apollo experience.