Fifty years ago this week, humankind landed on the Moon for the first time. It was one of the most impressive technological feats ever pulled off, filled with peril and uncertainty. Given that, it’s fair to wonder just what exactly NASA scientists were worried could have happened to the astronauts during and after their lunar trip. And yes, aliens (specifically, alien microbes) were on the short list.
The most pressing safety concerns about space travel during the Apollo program all had to do with the equipment used to send the astronauts there and back, according to Rod Pyle, a space historian and author of the recent book, “First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience.”
From exiting Earth to the spacesuits used for the historic brief Moon walks to the scalding temperatures the spacecraft experienced during reentry, Pyle noted, there were a million points of failure that could have ended in disaster.
“The fragile system was very robust, what we had at the time, but this was an era that was just a few years past the use of vacuum tubes in computers and electronics,” Pyle told Gizmodo by the phone.
One example of potential trouble involved the rocket used to launch them past Earth’s atmosphere, the Saturn V. During Apollo 6, the final uncrewed mission, the rocket experienced several failures, including violent, destructive vibrations that sent pieces of the rocket flying. NASA claimed to have worked out the kinks following the mission, though and the Saturn V maintained a perfect flight record throughout the Apollo program.
On the Apollo 11 mission itself, Buzz Aldrin accidentally broke the circuit breaker switch on the lunar module meant to ignite the engine that would have returned him and Neil Armstrong to the command module orbiting above.
After radioing mission control, Aldrin eventually improvised by using a felt-tip pen as the switch instead, possibly saving them from being stranded on the Moon (the module’s lunar launch probably could have worked even without the pen, Armstrong said in a 2011 interview, but it was “nice to get a little insurance.”)
As for the Apollo astronauts themselves, there was initially some worry that the sheer emotional gravity of hurtling through space could have weighed on their minds and affected the mission. But the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs, which sent astronauts into orbit around Earth for up to a week, had dispelled most of these fears. And all throughout the space race, astronauts were screened for psychological problems. There were no hiccups seen during any of the Apollo missions, according to a 1975 government report detailing the medical aspects of the program.
“It is perhaps remarkable that there was virtually no difficulty from a psychological and psychodynamic viewpoint among highly competitive, driving, and forceful individuals,” the report said, attributing at least some of the credit to the constant work that had to be done by the three-person crews during the missions that left little time for “deep contemplation.”
Scientists were pretty sure that life didn’t exist in any form on the Moon by the time the Apollo program launched. But they weren’t taking any chances, having established a quarantine protocol for the astronauts as soon as they landed back on Earth. According to Pyle, though, there would have been a fatal flaw if something truly nefarious had come back with them.
“So when these guys landed in the water, the Navy divers swam over, opened the hatch, threw in three biological contamination garments, and they had to seal themselves up in these things and go into quarantine for three weeks,” Plyes explained. “Now, of course, when they opened the hatch to throw the garments in, then anything could have come out of there. We could have had tentacle monsters running around — that didn’t happen thankfully.”
The astronauts weren’t optimistic about the plan, either.
“Suppose there were germs on the Moon,” Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 astronaut who manned the command module in lunar orbit as Aldrin and Armstrong touched down on the Moon, said in a recent documentary about the mission for PBS. “There are germs on the Moon, we come back, the command module is full of lunar germs. The command module lands in the Pacific Ocean, and what do they do? Open the hatch. You got to open the hatch! All the damn germs come out!”
Ultimately, the quarantine was abandoned after Apollo 14, for obvious reasons. And though Apollo astronauts did experience mild ills like upset stomachs and head colds during the flights, there were no major health problems documented throughout the entirety of the program.
That isn’t to say there weren’t some health consequences for the men who flew to the Moon. Buzz Aldrin famously experienced a serious bout of depression and an addiction to alcohol upon his return. Though some of the stress was due to the outsized public attention he was now getting, he also went through an existential crisis.
“Further, [Aldrin] had expected that the landing of men on the Moon would have a tremendous impact on the world,” the 1975 report noted. “He was extremely distressed to find that the world did not change appreciably and certainly not immediately, as a result of the achievement of Apollo 11.”
The short duration of actual time spent in space during the Apollo flights (the longest mission was 12 days) is thought to have had little lasting physical effect on the astronauts who ventured to the Moon. But a 2016 study suggested they were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease as they got older than astronauts in the program who never flew past Earth’s orbit, likely due to cosmic radiation exposure.
A 2018 study later contradicted those results, finding no link between the amount of radiation early NASA astronauts got and their chances of dying from cardiovascular disease or cancer. Another study, published just this month, also found that space radiation didn’t increase mortality for astronauts.
But even if the original Moon missions were harmless to humans, the longer (at least six months) missions to Mars planned for the future will undoubtedly present new potential hazards and challenges for astronauts.
So it’s worth appreciating the great risks that the Apollo astronauts and others since took and will continue to take to explore space.
“Basically, we flew to the Moon using the processors you find in microwaves now,” Pyle said. “It was just stunning, but it worked.”