On July 24, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were greeted like heroes after being picked up in the Pacific Ocean upon returning from the moon. They were then confined for 21 days in a now famous Airstream trailer.

NASA's landmark Apollo 11 mission, which saw the first humans walk on the moon, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. While we adopt social distancing to halt the spread of COVID-19, little is known about the quaranting the pioneering astronauts of Apollo 11 were confined in. It is a story for our times.

30th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Mission
(Photo : NASA/Newsmakers)
376713 09: (FILE PHOTO) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has named these three astronauts as the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Left to right, are Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission is celebrated July 20, 1999.

"Twelve men are in absolute quarantine here because of something that probably does not exist," The New York Times reported.

So, what was it like to be in quarantine as an astronaut?

Apollo Astronauts Were Quarantined Amid Fears of a 'Moon Plague'

NASA was concerned about a "moon plague", so Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were placed in quarantine as soon as they returned to Earth. Is it possible that extraterrestrial germs on the moon posed a threat to humans?

"There was lots of debate and fear," Judith Hayes, chief of NASA's Biomedical Research and Environmental Sciences Division, told the Houston Chronicle. "There was a big public outcry, and people were concerned."

Apollo 11 Was Decontaminated Upon Return to Earth

In response to the public worry, rescue divers from US Navy recovery helicopters scrubbed the hatch with iodine. They had to toss the BIG (Biological Isolation Garment) suits into the capsule for the crew to put on shortly after the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia splashed down about 950 miles southwest of Honolulu. Space Center said these suits were created to keep any alien organisms that the astronauts may have picked up during their Moon journey from spreading.

After being sprayed with bleach and taken by helicopter to an aircraft carrier, the first people to walk on the moon -- and their spacecraft -- went straight into a mobile isolation unit.

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When the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum reopens after its brief closure (along with the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia), you can see Buzz Aldrin's BIG at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Apollo 11's Quarantine in Texas

The astronauts were still required to wear the suit until they were safely inside the MQF aboard the USS Hornet, a rescue aircraft carrier. 

After the USS Hornet docked in Hawaii on July 27, 1969, the whole Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) was flown to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas, and put right into what NASA named the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL).

They stayed in the LRL for another 15 days, quarantined behind an airlock after they were exposed to ultraviolet light to kill any exotic bacteria and microbes. At the end of each working day, everyone in the LRL had to shower and be disinfected. According to NASA, they agreed to be quarantined indefinitely if moon pathogens escaped.

After being approved by NASA's surgeon, the astronauts were released from quarantine on August 10, 1969 and were brought home to their families.

That put an end to a nearly month-long quarantine. So how did they deal with it?

How They Coped Up With Long Periods Alone

"The unit was comfortable, but there was little to do and nowhere to go, so we got bored in a hurry," said Buzz Aldrin in No Dream Is Too High. While they ate well, the astronauts had little to do other than play table tennis, use a small gym, receive daily medical tests, and have lengthy debriefings from NASA in a conference room separated by glass. Meanwhile, Neil Armstrong practiced his ukulele skills. He also celebrated his 39th birthday in quarantine.

No Moon Plague Found

Quarantine was dropped for future flights after fears of an extraterrestrial "moon plague" were disproved. But astronauts flying to the International Space Station are still quarantined before launch to avoid bringing infections into orbit. 

In the event that NASA sends astronauts to Mars or Elon Musk and SpaceX try to settle Mars, according to the Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes, there will be rules in place to protect Earth and the entire solar system from extraterrestrial contamination.

RELATED ARTICLE: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins Quarantined for 21 Days; What Happened To Apollo 11 Astronauts After Lunar Mission?

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