The Apollo 11 Quarantine Airstream

apollo 11 quarantine airstream

Quarantine may be unpleasant for anyone to endure, but in 1969 it was an essential safeguard against transmissible lunar bacteria and organisms being introduced back into Earth by NASA’s space pioneers.

NASA had designated this polished aluminum trailer the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), where they would spend three weeks.

The Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF)

In 1969, three additional Mobile Quarantine Facilities (MQFs) joined MQF-001 to serve Apollo 11, 12, and 14 astronauts from splashdown until returning them back to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL). Each MQF provided essential protection of astronauts and lunar samples during these missions.

To isolate its inhabitants from terrestrial environments and microbes, the MQF needed to provide self-contained accommodations featuring negative internal pressure, filtration system, and decontamination airlock. Furthermore, it had to connect via tunnel to the floating Command Module (CM), while being capable of transporting crew members and equipment without breaking quarantine regulations.

The MQF was constructed using a modified 35-foot Airstream trailer. Fitted with an aluminum body shell and large windows designed to seal out noise and pollution, the trailer functioned essentially as a motor home without wheels. Equipped with living area, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen amenities – and powered by diesel generator and batteries; its interface could quickly transfer power between ship or aircraft systems for swift transferral to LRLs.

Once Apollo 11’s three astronauts disembarked and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, they entered the MQF through a tunnel onboard USS Hornet–their prime recovery vessel–where Rear Adm. Donald C. David welcomed them aboard with a color guard salute.

Once the astronauts had left their MQFs behind, they climbed out onto the flight deck of USS Hornet and waved goodbye to their families before being loaded into quarantine for 21 days. Their MQF has since been restored and put on display at U.S. Space and Rocket Park at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama where I had an opportunity to witness it close up; two more MQFs used by Apollo 12 and 14 are displayed at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly Virginia while USS Hornet Sea Air and Space Museum Alameda California respectively.

The MQF’s Design

The MQF was a specially modified silver Airstream trailer designed to meet NASA’s specifications for quarantine vehicles; specifically, to meet their criteria of being secure on cargo planes and ships, maintaining lower pressure inside for biological isolation purposes, providing comfortable living areas, large enough to house three astronauts plus crew members comfortably, with communication capabilities so astronauts could stay in touch with family and friends back home.

After Apollo 11 splashdown, a quarantine protocol was instituted to guard against any chance that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins might have picked up microorganisms or extraterrestrial organisms from the lunar surface which might contaminate spacecraft samples and hamper researchers. Once out of their command module hatch hatches they were immediately transported into MQFs equipped with Biosafety Garments designed to contain any potential alien organisms they might have come in contact with during their mission.

Once inside the MQF, astronauts had to wait several days until being flown back to Houston and decontaminated. While in space they kept busy with post-flight paperwork, debriefings, physicals and news updates.

As soon as they were free of their MQFs, astronauts needed to walk through a tunnel that connected it with a mockup of Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC; now Johnson Space Center). This specially-built passage allowed astronauts to access LRL without opening doors in their MQF.

MQF-001 (pictured left), used for quarantining the Apollo 11 crew, can now be seen on display at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center. Other MQFs were transferred to other government agencies before later being restored for display in museums. By Apollo 14’s completion, NASA eliminated quarantine requirements due to scientific assessment that there were no threats from lunar microorganisms; click through this gallery for images showing MQFs both before 1969 as well as now.

The MQF’s Construction

As COVID-19 demonstrated this year, diseases can spread quickly from person to person – as evidenced by its pandemic nature. Over 50 years ago, scientists who sent astronauts on lunar voyages were concerned they might bring back some kind of “moon germ”. After returning home, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins were quickly isolated in mobile quarantine trailers called MQFs for safety measures.

NASA contracted out for NASA to modify a 35-foot Airstream travel trailer, the MQF was equipped with comfortable living areas, sleeping and toilet facilities as well as a laboratory for medical testing of any samples brought back by astronauts and designed to be transported easily on ships, aircrafts and cargo planes.

LRD’s prime contractor, Melpar, awarded a subcontract to Airstream Company of Jackson Center, Ohio to modify travel trailers into recovery quarantine units. They chose Airstream because of its superior construction quality and ease of modification for use as quarantine units. Customized trailers included bunk beds, lounge seating and galley areas to allow comfortable yet efficient biological isolation operations; additionally they featured an internal negative pressure system and decontamination transfer lock to allow easy docking with Command Module (CM) or Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL), while keeping quarantine isolation intact.

Workers trucked the MQF from MSC Building 259 for post-delivery inspection and checkout at MSC’s Building 259. After initial compatibility tests, a C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft flew it to Norfolk, Virginia where sailors would load it aboard the carrier U.S.S. Randolph before it was transferred to LRL by sailors sailor transferrence procedure rehearsed docking procedures including opening its collapsible tunnel to simulate Apollo CM deployment without breaking its isolation barrier barrier rehearsed docking procedures including opening its collapsible tunnel to interact with mockup Apollo CMs to transfer lunar samples reenterance process was practiced before loading onto U.S.S Randolph before sailors transferred it in Virginia before finally transfer onto LRL LRL before Sailors took it into LRL after loading onto LRL without breaking its isolation barrier barrier before finally moving it onto LRL where technicians performed preliminary docking procedures by using C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft refueling station C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft from Norfolk Virginia before flying it towards Norfolk Virginia before eventually loading U.S.S. Randolph before moving it onto carrier U.S.S.S. Randolph carrier U.S.S. Randolph before loading onto carrier U.S.S Randolph then transfer onto carrier U.S.S Randolph carrier U.S.S Randolph carrier U.S.S Randolph to LRL on board ship U.S Randolph loaded onto U.S Randolph after Sailor transferred it onto carrier U.S Randolph then transferred it aboard U.S Randolph where sailors transferred it U.S.S Randolph for transfer onto its LRL where technicians practiced docking procedures while Navy did Rh Randolph where its loaded RANDRL for transfer onto LRL before S Randolph before Sailor transferred.S Randolph where Sailor then transferred it,S Randolph where Sailor then transferment on U.S.Randolph followed then LRL while then LRL then after transfer before Sailor then transferred it then transferred then LLR for Randolph before finally transferred it on board U.S Randolph carrier U USSR Randolph before Sailor then transferred it then transferred it then later transferred it then transferred onto LLR before then transferred it eventually finally later transferred it on LLR after transferped, before finally transferred it onto LLR for later transfer for transfer then transferred it onto LLR via LLR onward where Technicians practice docking procedures including deployment when loading onto U S Randolph before finally transferped then transferred it finally loading U Rand Randolph before transfer on then transferred it onto LRL LLR LRL then transferred LLR where LRL before finally transferred LRL again before LRL for LRL where finally docking procedure onto LRL which then LRL LRL without breaking its isolation barrier before finally unloads Randolph then transferred by Sailor transferred then transferped transferred LLR where it finally transferred it LLR later for loading USSR Randolph later LLR until LRL in Virginia after its loading loaded Randolph until eventually transfer onto carrier U S Randolph before then transferred then later loaded it later then loaded it subsequently loaded it onto carrier UUS R Randolph before Randolph carrier UUSSR then transferred L then transferred onto LLR by Sailor transferred LLL finally transferred it back onto USS Randolph for loading V then transferred then LRL then transferred. Sailor transferred.R then eventually eventually LRL for LLR before finally and transfer.L later.S then then transfer

The MQF was used on all three Apollo missions and for a brief period after Apollo 13’s aborted mission before its use was discontinued due to lack of Moon pathogen threats to Earth. Today, three out of the four MQFs built are on display at different locations including Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia as well as Huntsville Space and Rocket Park.

The MQF’s Operation

The MQF Airstream was one of four Airstreams created during NASA’s Apollo program to quarantine astronauts and lunar samples after landing back on Earth. It was designed and manufactured by Melpar, Inc. of Falls Church, Virginia for use during quarantining activities after landing. NASA awarded them a contract in 1967 to design and construct it by 1968; after completion, sea trials off Norfolk went smoothly.

The Lunar Sample Collector had several key features to ensure its biological isolation and overall safety, such as being able to depressurize quickly and attaching itself to any ship, plane, or towing vehicle. Furthermore, there was also a tunnel connecting it and the Command Module that served to transport crew members along with personal belongings and collected lunar samples back and forth between both modules.

Once back on Earth, the MQF was moved from USS Hornet onto aircraft carrier USS Lexington for transport to Hickam Air Force Base for loading into a C-141 cargo hold aircraft before flying it onward to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston where it would eventually be unloaded and transferred to Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL).

At the MQF, astronauts were housed in bunks that looked similar to military barracks, complete with running water and a microwave oven for food brought from outside on plastic serving trays. Quarantine was maintained by keeping air pressure lower than that of their surrounding environment while filtering with advanced biological devices – and wearing specially designed suits called Biological Isolation Garments or BIGs which allowed them to breath air while still protecting against its contaminants entering their bodies.

Scientists deemed two weeks necessary for them to conduct extensive tests on their Moon rock samples for possible extraterrestrial microbes and release them once results were available. After they returned home with clear results, the astronauts could resume normal duties.

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