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I am fascinated by so many different things – that is one of the reasons I love to travel so much. It is always the quirky things that intrigue me, like shot towers or even mortgage brag buttons (more on the last one soon)!
In February, I went to the Southern Travelers Explore conference and got to play in beautiful Huntsville, Alabama. On our first night, we had our opening event at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, hosted by the Huntsville – Madison County CVB.
We were treated to hors d’oeuvres, drinks, a fun show at the planetarium, and then a walk through the facility as well as a chance to listen to the four docents – who actually worked on the tech behind the scenes for the Apollo space missions.
I hung with Kenny Mitchell and was amazed at his knowledge – that man had done so much at a time when a computer would take up an entire large room and used punch cards!
One thing he showed us was an Airstream trailer – which I thought was totally out of place with lunar buggies, space pods, etc.
And then I had to know more! Quarantine? They thought ahead enough to prepare for a post-flight quarantine? We sure as heck knew about that after almost 2 years of Covid-19.
I had to dig deeper.
Afraid of the Unknown
Over 50 years ago, no one knew what to expect when humans first visited the Moon. Scientists feared that astronauts returning from the Moon might carry back “unwanted passengers”— deadly lunar microbes that would quickly spread throughout the Earth’s population. As a result, the National Academy of Sciences sought a way to isolate the Apollo astronauts upon their return from a series of planned Moon landings.
Accordingly, NASA established the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), a converted Airstream trailer. The MQF served as a quarantine for astronauts and their samples returning from lunar landing missions. Following lunar landing missions, the MQF accommodated astronauts and support crews for the first few days after splashdown.
NASA flew the MQF to Houston after the aircraft carrier arrived, where the crew would spend the remaining 21 days of quarantine in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at the Manned Spacecraft Center.
Why Did Scientists Think They Needed MQF?
In the early 1960s, humans began a process of achieving a technological and historical milestone as NASA prepared for the Apollo missions to take humans to the Moon. However, scientists didn’t know what the astronauts would find there at the time.
Among the fears, scientists worried that the astronauts might return to Earth bearing some exotic and strange microbe or organism living on the Moon and wipe out all life on Earth. The scientists took the prospect of catastrophic contamination that humans’ immune systems couldn’t fight seriously. Hence, they decided that the returning astronauts would have to be quarantined for a while to see if they developed any “moon disease.”
In 1963, a special subcommittee of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that NASA should create a quarantine program. They also established an Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) in 1966 and included the federal agencies responsible for protecting public health, agriculture, and other living and natural resources.
The agencies included were; the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Public Health Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. By late August 1966, the agencies in conjunction with NASA agreed that NASA could employ a “mobile quarantine facility.”
In June of 1967, NASA granted Melpar, Inc., of Falls Church, Virginia, the contract to develop and build the four MQFs. The project manager in charge was Lawrence K. Eliason.
NASA modified four Airstream trailers as quarantine facilities for use in Apollo missions. The mobile quarantine facility (MQF) was one of four built by NASA for astronauts returning from the Moon.
How Was MQF Built?
At a total cost of $250,000, NASA developed four MQFs. The MQF was roughly 6 tons and measured 35 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 8.5 feet tall. The MQF was essentially a motor home without wheels, with an aluminum skin, large specially-sealed windows, a living room, bedrooms, bathroom, and a kitchen.
NASA fitted each MQF with a complex “under pressure” system, in which the air pressure inside the trailer was kept slightly lower than the normal atmospheric pressure outside. Reason: if a leak developed, the higher air pressure outside forced its way in, preventing any potentially-contaminated air from escaping from inside.
Air coming in and out of the trailer’s breathing system traveled through a long line of filters and scrubbers, which used various decontaminating chemicals to sterilize it.
The MQF also had communications equipment that the astronauts used to communicate with their loved ones. After splashdown, the Apollo 11 crew utilized this technology to communicate with President Nixon, who personally welcomed them back to Earth aboard the recovery ship USS Hornet in July 1969. Some say it looked like a vacation trailer; well, it was!
How Quarantine Was Supposed to Work
NASA set the quarantine to avoid the spread of any contagions brought back from the Moon. The process began even before the astronauts landed.
A US Navy helicopter from the aircraft carrier Hornet, piloted by Commander Don Jones, flew to meet the Apollo Command Module. It floated to the Pacific on its red and white parachutes. Jones and his crew wore “BIGs,” or “Biological Isolation Garments,” sealed with anti-contamination outfits.
As soon as the astronauts splashed down and opened the hatch to the Command Module, divers tossed them a set of BIGs, which they had to put on before exiting the capsule and boarding the helicopter for transportation back to the Hornet.
The three Apollo 11 astronauts were free to remove their BIG suits once inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility. A NASA doctor William Carpentier followed them inside, where he would keep an eye on the crew’s health during the quarantine period. The MQF worked by keeping the internal pressure low and filtering any released air.
President Richard Nixon visited the astronauts once they settled into the MQF and spoke with them by phone through the window. And once they arrived in Texas, the astronauts were finally able to talk to their wives and families by phone through the window.
The MQF was then trucked to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. After 65 hours inside, the crew was finally able to exit the trailer and enter specially-built self-contained quarantine quarters. The astronauts remained quarantined inside the Lunar Receiving Laboratory for another two weeks.
According to NASA procedure, everything inside the spacecraft, including the spacesuits, equipment, tools, and the lunar soil and rock samples, had to be quarantined in case they carried space diseases. These items were transported to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in sealed containers, followed by the sealed spacecraft.
After completing the operation of emptying the Command Module, NASA engineer John Hirasaki joined the astronauts on the Hornet—inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility. At the end of the 21-day quarantine, the astronauts and the NASA engineer earned a clean bill of health and left quarantine. The moon samples and equipment remained quarantined for another week.
The crews of Apollo 11, 12, 13, and 14 used the Mobile Quarantine Facility. After Apollo 14, astronauts no longer needed the use of MQFs because it was proven that there was no life (and thus no germs) on the Moon.
The Whereabouts of The MQFs
NASA produced and delivered four MQFs, but only three housed the crews of the first three lunar missions. The fourth MQF remained unused.
Three of the four Mobile Quarantine Facilities created during the Apollo Moon landings still survive. “After years of neglect, one of the units is gone,” says Allan Needell, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo collection (NASM). “The other three, on the other hand, have made it.”
The MQF, which housed Apollo 11 astronauts Neal Armstrong, Michel Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, was put on public display at the United States Space & Rocket Center for around 30 years until being “called home” by the Smithsonian Institution. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport presently has it on exhibit.
Experts disassembled the Apollo 13 MQF to inquire what caused its oxygen tank explosion. Paris displayed the external shell. The inner components were reconstructed into one of NASA’s boilerplate test modules and displayed at the Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science until 2000. At the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, the shell and interior were reassembled and displayed together for the first time.
Today, Apollo 14 is the first mission on which all astronauts are no longer alive. The capsule is on exhibit at Kennedy Space Center’s Apollo/Saturn V Center after being on display at the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame near Titusville, Florida, for several years.
The Apollo 12 MQF trailer logged a circuitous route since being sold by NASA as surplus and has spent the last two decades lost.
The Lost and Found Mobile Quarantine Facility
According to records, NASA turned Apollo 12 MQF to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the mid-1970s. The MQF’s work was to carry scientists back to the United States after exposure to a severe virus in Sierra Leone.
After several years in storage, the CDC handed Apollo 12 MQF over to the Georgia Department of Forestry for use as a mobile command center. Later, they reported it destroyed in a fire. For years, no one could refute the allegation, and many considered that the Apollo 12 MQF was forever lost. Until March 2007, the USSRC received an email from Dr. Johnson.
Dr. Paul Johnson, then Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation’s Aquatic Biodiversity Center in Marion, says he felt there was more to the trailer than officials realized at once he saw it. Dr. Johnson, a space enthusiast, had seen the Apollo 11 MQF on exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and immediately recognized the Marion trailer as being similar.
The documentation trail for the unit appeared in the days that followed. The USSRC learned that the CDC transferred the MQF to the USGS’s Biological Resources Division in the early 1990s. That’s how it made its way to Perry County and the USGS fish hatchery in Marion, which was closed in 1995.
The United States transferred ownership of the old hatchery, including the property, buildings, and associated equipment, to the state of Alabama began efforts to convert the site into a research facility to study endangered aquatic species in 2006. Dr. Johnson was appointed to the position at the beginning of 2007 when he recognized the MQF.
After the ownership of the MQF was officially transferred to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the USSRC moved the unit to Huntsville and stored it until its restoration.
The Apollo 12 MQF is now on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, where I got an up-close and personal view.
Check out Huntsville for yourself
Don’t take my word for it, though; check out the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and soooo many other cool things for yourself when you visit! Here are a few other things we checked out:
- Harrison Brother’s Hardware of Huntsville Alabama: Why You Need to Check Out This Store
- 106 Jefferson Hotel of Huntsville Alabama: History, Luxury, and More
- The Woman Behind the Weeden House Museum of Huntsville Alabama
- A Fascinating Look at NASA’s Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF)
- Explore the INTUITIVE Planetarium: A Guide to Huntsville’s Unique Space Adventure
- Burritt on the Mountain: An Open Air Museum Worth a Visit