"The Andromeda Strain"
came out in 1971, just two years after Michael Crichton's
book of the
same name was published. The plot centered around a military satellite which had
returned to earth harboring a deadly microorganism that killed the entire
town of people where it landed. 1969, the year of the book, coincided with when
the first humans, via Apollo 11, were exposed to the environment of another
heavenly body - the moon. "The Andromeda
Strain" owed its public intrigue to decades of stories telling of and
wondering about what kinds of deadly living and nonliving entities might
permeate outer space and potentially cause a plague which might end life on
Earth. Although NASA had, by July of 1969, a lot of experience with vehicles and
humans going into space and returning with detectable traces of harmful
organisms or chemicals, it had never dealt with anything that had been exposed
to the surface of another solid body (the moon). Any type of biomass that might
have accompanied a meteorite would have been rendered lifeless as its host
projectile burned during passage through Earth's atmosphere. Apollo 11
astronauts might bring with them entities protected by the same life-preserving
capsule that would keep them alive during their trip home. This 1968 Popular
Mechanics article provides insight into the preparations made for dealing
with such a scenario.
After the Long Voyage Home
Major tests, on both astronauts and lunar samples, will be done at Lunar Receiving
Laboratory. Facility trailer, with astronauts still inside, still sealed off from
earth atmosphere, will deposit them at LRL about week after splashdown. Spacecraft
is also quarantined at LRL. Samples , meanwhile, have already been placed in individual
vacuum chambers in sample-operations section to test them for gases, radiation,
physical properties and, most important, their possible effect on earth environment
Art Concept by Jan Brunsen
By Harold Williams
No one knows what strange organisms astronauts may bring back from the moon,
so they'll spend a month in a new $12-million 'quarantine cottage'
Since man first looked up at the moon, he's wondered, "What's it made of?" He
may soon find out.
Apollo astronauts will bring back 50 to 80 pounds of the lunar surface for history's
most thorough scientific examination. But it raises problems.
Scientists say they are reasonably sure that no organisms will be found in the
samples. This small doubt, however, caused the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
to build a $12-million Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston.
The reason is that organisms brought to Earth could be dangerous pathogens unknown
to our science.
Even if no organisms are found, the samples might behave erratically in our atmosphere,
give off poisonous gases or react unpredictably with other elements.
If either be true, then the samples and the moon-tramping astronauts themselves
might be unwitting carriers. So the astronauts, their spacecraft, all their clothing
and equipment, plus the samples, will be placed under a strict quarantine in the
LRL for at least 30 days. In the lab, a thorough examination of astronauts and the
material they bring back will be made.
The concept is unique: To place within one building all necessary equipment,
along with scientists - from medicine to geology, from chemistry to ichthyology
- to try to unlock secrets from another planet.
The laboratory has three roles:
• To detect extraterrestrial life.
• To study the origin of the universe.
• To study the moon and its relationship to Earth.
Of the three, the most exciting is detection of life outside the Earth.
The story will begin on the moon when astronauts collect samples outside a contamination
radius made by exhaust fumes and water ejected from landing rockets. A small coring
device will aid them to drill below the surface for truly uncontaminated material.
Returning Astronauts, after spacecraft is lifted aboard carrier, will enter Mobile
Quarantine Facility through sealed tunnel. They will remain inside, undergoing preliminary
medical examinations and debriefings, until carrier docks and facility trailer is
airlifted to Houston. Moon samples, however, will be jetted to base immediately.
Each sample will be wrapped individually, then placed in two miniature pressure
chambers. The carriers, along with the tools, will be sterilized before the flight
and be made of materials with easily recognizable spectrographic signatures to distinguish
them from the moon samples.
Containers will close over crushed indium, a rare chemical element, and be clamped
airtight. They won't be opened until placed in a vacuum chamber back at the lab,
so no trace of the earth environment can spoil them.
The quarantine starts the moment the spacecraft is hoisted onto the recovery
ship's deck. A sterile plastic tunnel is connected to the spacecraft's hatch and
to the Mobile Quarantine Facility, an instrument-loaded, $57,000 house trailer.
The astronauts, with two or three attendants - probably a doctor and another
standby astronaut - will stay in the trailer until it, too, is brought back to the
lab, perhaps a week later.
At the laboratory - a three-story complex covering 83,000 square feet and divided
into three sections - the astronauts will go to the crew-reception section and the
samples to the sample-operations section. These two areas are sealed off from each
other and from the third section - support and administration - by an elaborate
shield, the biological-barrier system.
For the astronauts' living accommodations, the living area has bedrooms, a living
room, a snack counter, office space, medical-examination rooms and a debriefing
room. The spacecraft has a quarantine space of its own.
For the samples, there is even more space. The sample-operations division occupies
three floors. Other laboratories include the vacuum chambers, magnetic testing,
gas analysis, biological test and biological containment.
In the vacuum laboratory, sample containers will be opened and repack-aged for
storage or shipment while inside vacuum chambers. Technicians opening the containers
will work with remote manipulators or gas-tight gloves. The chambers look like department-store
display cases, except the glass is much thicker.
The biological-test labs contain the entire spectrum of life from the lowly one-cell
amoeba to sharks, from algae to pine trees; all kinds of vegetables and plant life;
several varieties of birds; hundreds of bugs, lizards, alligators, snakes, dogs,
pigs and cows.
To test these living things with materials from another world, the lunar particles
will be ground into a fine dust. First, the animals will be exposed to the dust,
then made to inhale any of the gases, then an ointment containing the dust will
be dabbed onto their skin, and finally they will be inoculated with it. Dabbings
from the astronauts' skins will also be analyzed.
From these tests, the scientists can tell if it's safe to allow the astronauts
or samples out of quarantine.
In the physical-chemical test lab, small chips of the samples will be cataloged
and classified. Then they will be sent to scientists in the United States and overseas
for experiments in mineralogy and petrology, chemical and isotope analysis, and
In the underground radiation-counting lab, the gamma count may begin as soon
as 24 hours after splashdown.
The building's third major division, the support and administrative complex,
maintains many spare animals and plants, as well as auxiliary laboratories and testing
equipment, plus the communications system, closed-circuit television, observation
areas and offices.
Getting to the moon and back safely is the Apollo program's goal. It will be
one of the greatest achievements in history - and costliest ($22 billion).
But it will answer one of the oldest questions: "What's it made of?" * * *
Posted September 16, 2023