On this day in 1969, multiple parades are held in honor of the Apollo 11 astronauts. They’d just been released from quarantine. Many people remember Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the moon. But how many remember the quarantine that followed?
The entire crew was isolated for almost three weeks after they’d returned from that historic trip.
After all, no one knew for sure what the astronauts would bring home from the moon. What if they were exposed to a deadly lunar pathogen? Everyone needed to be sure that the astronauts were healthy before they came into contact with the general public again.
Those astronauts were pioneers, doing what pioneers do. They’d endured the rigors of training. They’d assumed the dangers inherent in their unprecedented voyage, knowing that they could die in a crash or find themselves lost in space. Yet there was another, lesser-known risk that they undertook: It was the risk that they could complete their mission successfully, only to die of a deadly disease in quarantine back on Earth.
Naturally, these risks weren’t going to stop Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins from doing what they had to do. They were part of a long line of American pioneers exhibiting the perseverance, bravery, and determination that have always made America great.
When Apollo 11’s command module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, the quarantine immediately went into effect. It looked a bit like something you might see in an Ebola scare today.
The crew was met by a receiving party from the USS Hornet. The three men immediately donned special biological containment suits, which they wore until they were safely inside a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) aboard the ship.
The helicopter crew sent to retrieve them as they bobbed in the Pacific wore the same suits, too. Just in case.
USS Hornet transported the men back to Hawaii where a ceremony was held in their honor. Apollo’s crew attended that ceremony in their trailer-like MQF, of course.
In a humorous twist, the NASA crew even filed customs forms after they arrived in Hawaii. They declared their “moon rock and moon dust samples” so they could get back into the country.
Their stay in Hawaii didn’t last long. The MQF was soon loaded onto a plane and flown back to Houston. Once there, the astronauts greeted their wives through windows. Surely such a reunion was fairly unsatisfying after all the pent-up nerves of the past few weeks! Yet it was simply going to have to do until the quarantine period was complete.
There are some today who maintain that the quarantine had a political component, too. What if an astronaut became sick after his return to Earth—even if that sickness was merely a common cold? Could the sickness push people into a panic? The quarantine might have had scientific reasons, but it provided cover from this type of situation also.
The astronauts were finally released from quarantine on August 10. Three days later, they were riding down the streets of New York in a ticker-tape parade. In the weeks and months that followed, it was just the first of many such events held in their honor.
The risk that they’d taken had been huge. And now they—and America—would reap the benefits.
Alan Taylor, The Year Men Walked on the Moon (The Atlantic; July 15, 2014)
Buzz Aldrin, No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon (2016)
James R. Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (2005)
Mobile Quarantine Facility (Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum)
Owen Edwards, Splendid Isolation: When the first astronauts to walk on the Moon returned from their July 1969 lunar expedition, they were confined to quarters (Smithsonian Mag; July 2004)