Space: Is the Earth Safe From Lunar Contamination?

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Whatever the prospects for lunar life, Cornell Microbiologist Martin Alexander feels that NASA's present Apollo quarantine plans are on shaky scientific grounds and hopelessly inadequate. In discussing the plans with those in the Apollo program, he says, he has heard such statements as, "Of course, it's a sham, but what else could we do?" and, "The public needs to be comforted, and the quarantine serves that function." Shocked by this seeming indifference to what could be a real threat, Alexander calls on NASA to reveal its quarantine plans fully and "to solicit frank opinions and criticism" from the scientific community.

In response to criticism from the Committee on Back Contamination, a group of scientists representing a variety of federal agencies, NASA has improved the complex quarantine procedures in Houston's $15.8 million Lunar Receiving Laboratory (TIME, Dec. 29, 1967), where the returned astronauts and their lunar samples will spend most of their three-week isolation period. The space agency has also taken makeshift measures to plug a major gap in the quarantine defenses: the post-splashdown exposure of the Apollo cabin atmosphere and the astronauts themselves in the earth's environment.

Antiseptic Solution. To minimize contamination of the command module interior, the two astronauts who walk on the lunar surface will leave their boots and gloves behind on the moon. Before they emerge from the spacecraft in the Pacific, the crew will have vacuumed the interior, collecting the swept-up material in canisters containing a chemical absorbent. Instead of climbing through the command module's open hatch and into a raft before donning their biological isolation garments, the astronauts will remain inside the spacecraft until a frogman opens the hatch, tosses the garments inside, and then closes it again. They will change into their bug-containing outfits and step into a raft filled with disinfectant. Then the frogman will spray more disinfectant on the astronauts and around the spacecraft hatch.

Despite these elaborate decontamination procedures, however, organisms-might well survive in the bodies of the astronauts and in the spacecraft atmosphere. Thus, when the craft is vented upon splashdown and when the hatch is opened twice—no matter how briefly—dangerous organisms could escape into the air and the ocean, perhaps to thrive and pose a threat to life on earth.

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