17 July 2009

Sharing The Risk

40 years ago this month, I remember staying up late with my family to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon. What I recall most vividly was not the scratchy, black and white video images, but the surreal caption NBC ran at the bottom of the screen: "Live From The Moon."

Four days later the crew splashed down in the Pacific. When the recovered astronauts were choppered to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, they greeted the cameras and cheering crowd wearing respirators and hazmat suits, before ducking into an Airstream trailer that had been retrofitted into a mobile quarantine facility. This quick dash into quarantine wasn't for the astronaut's protection: it was for the explicit protection of everyone on Earth.

In the years leading up to manned expeditions to the moon, there was broad (but not unanimous) scientific consensus that the lunar surface was lifeless: that the absence of atmosphere and continuous exposure to hard radiation alone rendered the moon perfectly sterile. But with empirical evidence to support this assumption unavailable, scientists could not guarantee the Apollo crew (and their lunar samples) would not return to earth with an extraterrestrial organism. In their report ("Conference on Potential Hazards of Back Contamination from the Planets, July 29- 30, 1964”. More background here), the advisory committee stated that "...negative data will not prove that extraterrestrial life does not exist; they will merely mean that it has not been found." The characteristics and behaviors of a hypothetical extraterrestrial organism, if introduced into the earth's biosphere, were as unknown as the consequences.

Should the hypothetical organism prove pathogenic, the committee hypothesized that contemporary science would likely be catastrophically ill-equipped to deal with the occurrence. With admirable actuarial precision, they calculated that the instant the returning Apollo 11 capsule's hatch was opened to the earth's atmosphere, the statistical risk of catastrophic (or possibly lethal) global contamination multiplied by 1,191,600,000 (using a formula they succinctly, if melodramatically, termed "the logarithmic order of death" and factored by the sum of the world's population, circa 1964).

The precautions taken by NASA to minimize a "back contamination" event were considered unnecessary by most experts, and arbitrary and incomplete by others. Most prominently, they included the construction of the now almost completely forgotten Lunar Receiving Laboratory: a high-containment facility where the lunar soil and rock samples could be studied in isolation much as we would Ebola or some other dangerous terrestrial pathogen. The LRL served as partial inspiration for one of Michael Chrichton's earlier best sellers, The Andromeda Strain, about a scientific team struggling to deal with a deadly extraterrestrial organism brought back to earth by a returning spacecraft (see the striking Robert Wise-directed 1971 original and not the flaccid, stupefying A&E network miniseries adaption of a few years ago).

With Apollo 11's landing on the lunar surface, the entire world watched that century's most perilous technological high-wire act from the safe distance of a quarter million miles. A few days later, upon the spacecraft's return, that same global audience --along with the earth's entire biosphere-- participated fully, if unwittingly, in a far riskier gamble. If the advisory committee’s logarithmic order of death was to be trusted, the odds against such an occurrence were better than a trillion to one, and as it happened, no pestilence returned with the astronauts. But when they cracked opened the hatch, all of us were along for the ride.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind me asking, what is your last name and school? I would like to cite you for something!