The first three flights that landed on the moon (Apollo 11, 12, and 14) required preparations to prevent possible lunar microbes from infecting the Earth. Equipment was disinfected and the astronauts were isolated after their flight. April 25th was the 49th anniversary of the end of this lunar quarantine.

What methods were used for lunar quarantine, and how do they compare to the recommendations for the current COVID-19 pandemic?



1 Answer 1


The chapter The Lunar Quarantine Program of Biomedical Results of Apollo (99 Mb pdf, 576 pages) describes the measures taken in the lunar quarantine program. The list of disinfectants that are effective against the virus which causes COVID-19 is provided by the U.S. EPA.

  • Gray tape (duct tape) was used to sweep up and contain dust on the lunar module floor. Once docked to the command module, they had a vacuum cleaner to further clean up dust. Neither of these measures would be effective against COVID-19 (and might actually help aerosolize the virus).

  • Astronauts were given isolation garments and respirators. For COVID-19, isolation garments and N95 respirators are to be worn by healthcare workers, not by those who are infected (for which basic surgical masks are enough).

    Biological isolation garments were used in Apollo 11 to isolate the crew from the Earth's environment and from contact with recovery personnel. These garments were constructed from a fabric which effectively isolated microorganisms from the crewman's body. The garment was donned in the spacecraft before the helicopter hoist operation and was worn until the crew entered the MQF aboard the primary recovery ship. The suit was fabricated of nylon. A respirator was worn with the garment. It featured an air-inlet flapper valve and high efficiency air-outlet filter to biologically filter expired gas. The Apollo 11 crew used a heavier biological isolation garment, but this was discarded as an unnecessary precaution after the initial lunar landing flight. On later missions, a lightweight overgarment was used when transferring from the Command Module to the MQF.

  • The initial decontamination of the command module, astronauts, and recovery crew/equipment while they were still in the ocean was by an iodine solution, which is listed as effective against COVID-19 on hard, nonporous surfaces wet for at least 10 minutes. Iodine solutions are often used to disinfect human skin prior to medical procedures.

    After the crewmen had donned the garments in the spacecraft, they closed the postlanding ventilation system valves. The hatch was then opened and they egressed into the raft which contained a decontaminant solution. The hatch was closed immediately after egress, and the swimmer who had provided the crew with their garments and masks sponged them off with a solution of organic iodine, an antibacterial agent. The spacecraft hatch was also washed down with the solution.

  • Once aboard the recovery ship, the astronauts entered the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF). They were joined by a technician (who retrieved items from and shut down the CM) and a flight surgeon. These five men did not follow social distancing guidelines.

    Apollo 11 astronauts in quarantine

    Not 6 feet apart. That's Nixon outside on the right.

  • The astronauts and others in the MQF were flown to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) in Houston. The flight would violate stay-in-place orders.

  • Once at the LRL in Houston, the astronauts had a brief daily examination by quarantine doctors, which included oral temperature, pulse rate, and an interview for symptoms. Self-monitoring of temperature and symptoms of COVID-19 is prudent, but you can do that yourself; there's no need to see a doctor for that.

  • The astronauts were to stay in quarantine, even if a minor illness or injury occurred. If something life-threatening developed, then they would be taken to a local hospital. The same considerations should be taken with COVID-19.

    Provisions were made to treat routine illness and minor injuries within the Crew Reception Area. Equipment and a small working pharmacy were available. Serious illness and injury were also to be treated onsite so far as possible. But, had any of the Apollo crewmen or support personnel become critically ill or injured, the quarantine would have been broken and the individual transported to the nearest appropriate medical facility.

  • The command module was also flown to Houston, and decontaminated with formaldehyde. That chemical does a great job of killing COVID-19, and is used for embalming dead people, but it is hazardous, should not be used to clean up COVID-19, and should not be ingested.

    Formaldehyde decontamination of the Command Module cabin and suit circuit was accomplished without reopening the hatch. Following a minimum 24-hour kill period, the hatch was opened and the cabin exhausted through the room air conditioning system. The water and waste management systems were also decontaminated with aqueous formaldehyde (formalin) for 24 hours.

  • Various items from the spacecraft were decontaminated with ethylene oxide gas and steam autoclaving. Both are used to sterilize medical supplies and equipment.

  • Hypochlorite (bleach) was used on other items. A 10% bleach solution on hard surfaces for 10 minutes is highly effective against COVID-19.

  • Peracetic acid was another highly-effective disinfectant that was used, and is approved for COVID-19 on hard, nonporous surfaces for 1 minute.

    All items leaving the complex during the quarantine period were either placed in vacuum-tight containers, the exteriors of which were sterilized with peracetic acid, or were directly sterilized with the acid.

  • Dry heat was used on a few items. This might have mixed results with COVID-19, as the virus seems to stay airborne longest in cold, dry air.

  • Air in the LRL had negative pressure, was filtered, incinerated, and then exhausted. Hospital rooms for COVID-19 are also supposed to have negative pressure and filtering, although incineration of the air is not necessary.

  • Lunar quarantine also protected against radioactive contamination, which is not a factor with COVID-19.

  • Astronauts and quarantine personnel were held in quarantine for at least 21 days. The quarantine period for COVID-19 is only 14 days.

  • Had a close contact developed an illness, the astronauts' quarantine period was to be extended. The same holds with COVID-19.

    Technically, release of the Apollo crews might have been delayed because of illness among the support staff. This, however, never occurred.

  • Some items (e.g. spacesuits) were simply held without explicit decontamination until the quarantine period was over. This will also work for the COVID-19 virus, if the item is left undisturbed for two weeks.

They didn't drink or inject disinfectants. Nor should you.


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