The headlines in the wake of Apollo 11 could have been very, very different.
It would have been the ultimate contingency of Apollo 11: What if the astronauts returning home unleashed upon Earth something dangerous and foreign to science — moon germs?
Before Apollo 11 set out, NASA couldn’t be positive that, if bits of dust or potential microorganisms got loose back home, life on Earth would be safe. Needless to say, accidentally setting a lunar plague loose on the inhabitants of Earth would have erased all the good publicity garnered by accomplishing the moon landing in the first place. Just in case, in addition to the protections they were establishing to make sure the moon rocks remained free of terrestrial contamination, NASA decided to establish a three-week quarantine for the crew of Apollo 11.
“Initially, NASA thought that all they really needed was a clean room to handle the packaging of the lunar samples in a vacuum,” Judith Hayes, chief of NASA’s biomedical research and environmental sciences division, told Space.com. “They started really wrapping their head around this, is my understanding. They said, ‘We’ve really never done this before, so we’re not really sure,’ even though I think most of the scientists didn’t firmly believe that there might be a risk.” [ … ]