50 years before the coronavirus pandemic, astronauts in the Apollo-11 mission were quarantined after they returned from the moon. The reason? NASA wanted to make sure they did not bring any virus from outer space
July 24, 1969. The lunar module carrying three Apollo-11 astronauts nosedived into the Pacific Ocean. It was about 6.30 in the morning. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins - the three astronauts aboard must have been anticipating fanfare- for their moon landing victory, of course.
However, when the lunar module splashed into the blue water, no such thing happened. The trio of astronauts saw a swimmer approaching them. The swimmer, first in history to open the hatch of a moon returnee spacecraft, carried some garments for the astronauts.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins- all of them peeked out of the lunar module and were handed the special 'Biological Isolation Garments.' They wore the suits. As the 'American heroes' breathed Earth air (through their protective headgear) after two weeks in space, they were escorted to a quarantine facility in Houston.
The astronauts were to be quarantined in a NASA facility for 21 days. Before the astronauts get a pat on their back from the president, NASA wanted to make sure they did not bring any kind of microorganism from the moon. NASA could not rule out the possibility of a lunar virus, dubbed as 'moon plague.'
"The moon might have contagious viruses, foreign to science" - is one of the what-if questions that prompted NASA to quarantine the Apollo-11 crew. It was the 1960s, the prime of vaccination and immunization. Who would want a potential moon virus on Earth? That would totally backslide the optimism earned in the war against contagious diseases.
The press at that time reacted accordingly. The New York Times reported: "These men are in absolute quarantine here because of something that probably does not exist." Another excerpt from a news read: "They will be treated not as heroes but as bearers of the most virulent, devastating plague the world has ever known." This part refers to a situation if there was indeed a virus.
The clock ticked for 21 days as the astronauts were quarantined in a state of the art facility. Neil Armstrong turned 39 during this time. NASA did not forget to send him a two-layer vanilla cake, and 39 candles.
As the quarantine ended on August 10, 1969, the astronauts were ready to get back to their scheduled itinerary: exploring the Earth. And the fanfare? Well, it didn't just end with motorcades, gala dinners and medals. They became the poster child for kids who dream to become an astronaut someday.
Men who gifted mankind with 49 pounds of moon samples, had to live away from their wives and kids for safety. In 2020, we can do the same for our loved ones by staying indoors.