I originally wrote this story for the NASAExplores.com web site eight years ago, for the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11. The site has since been taken down, so I’m republishing it here since it’s public domain. In nine years with the agency, this was one of my favorite stories I got to write.
It was possibly the biggest event of the century, and John Hirasaki was part of a captive audience for the story.
As a 28-year-old NASA engineer in 1969, Hirasaki found himself sealed in a trailer with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins, just returned from the first lunar landing.
When the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth days after the July 20, 1969 Moon landing, they were immediately placed in a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF, in acronym-intensive NASA-speak) aboard the U.S.S. Hornet aircraft carrier, which recovered their spacecraft from the Pacific Ocean.
In the MQF, the crew was transferred to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, where they spent the remainder of 21 days in isolation, to prevent the spread of any alien germs they may have encountered while walking on the Moon.
Hirasaki, who had come to work for NASA only 3 years earlier, was one of two people placed in the MQF with the Apollo 11 crew when they landed. Hirasaki, 63, who today works as an system integrations engineer at Johnson Space Center, recently discussed his experiences with NASAexplores.com.
“I joined NASA back in ’66, a year and a half out of college,” he said. “It sounded like a great place to work, with very interesting projects to do. First thing out of the bag, they throw you in the middle of the activities associated with spacecraft recovery operation, tell you to build the necessary hardware to evaluate the recovery equipment, ask you to prepare plans to test and qualify the hardware and procedures, and, in general, give you the responsibility to make it work.”
For his first assignment, Hirasaki was placed in the Landing and Recovery Division at Johnson Space Center for the Gemini Program, which was then nearing its end. He was deployed to the northern Pacific Ocean on a Destroyer for the final Gemini mission to work on the craft as soon as it was lifted from the ocean if it were to encounter a contingency landing in that area.
At the same time, NASA was beginning work on the Apollo program, and Hirasaki was tapped to begin planning the landing recovery measures for spacecraft returning from the Moon. His duties included working on the post-landing deactivation procedures for the Apollo Reaction Control System, the smaller thrusters used to maneuver the spacecraft, and the qualification of the Apollo Post-landing Life Support Systems for recovered spacecraft.
He developed tests to make sure that, if necessary, the Apollo capsule could support its crew on the open seas for 48 hours while waiting for recovery workers. To simulate worst case post-landing conditions, test subjects spent 2 days in the Apollo capsule in a wave tank at Johnson Space Center while under simulated solar radiation and high humidity conditions controlled by raw steam pumped into the room.
“Hot out of college, you’re dumped in the program, and told, ‘Hey, go write up the test procedures, run the test program, write the reports, take care of everything,’” Hirasaki said. “So, I thought it was a very interesting training ground for young engineers.
“They literally just tossed you in there and made you go for it. So those were some rather interesting days where you had an extreme sense of accomplishment with your job.”
Because of his work with landing recovery procedures on the Apollo spacecraft, Hirasaki was tapped for qualification tests on the Mobile Quarantine Facility.
The MQF, essentially a highly modified trailer without wheels, was put through trials on the stern of a destroyer in the Atlantic, and later on an aircraft carrier during one of the pre-lunar-landing Apollo missions.
In other tests, the facility was placed in an altitude chamber to simulate rapid decompression (which would have broken quarantine), and microbes were introduced to its interior to make sure it would prevent the spread of pathogens.
In the wake of the Apollo I fire, less than a year after Hirasaki began to work for NASA, modifications were made to eliminate flammable materials in the potentially oxygen-rich environment of the MQF. Since the MQF was intended to be transported by aircraft, it had its own oxygen supply system in the event that the aircraft experienced a loss of cabin pressure.
Finally, as the launch date for Apollo 11 neared, a volunteer was needed to serve in the MQF after the mission to perform landing recovery tasks on the Command Module, Columbia. After all his training, hard work, and preparation, Hirasaki’s selection for the job came down to luck.
“There were four of us out of the Landing and Recovery Division that sort of volunteered for the position,” he said. “We ended up drawing straws to see who would go on that first mission. And it just so happened that I ended up with the short straw. So that’s how I ended up getting hooked up for the Apollo 11 mission.”
While he had a little concern about the possibility of Moon germs, Hirasaki believed that the opportunity was well worth the risk.
“Obviously there’s concern, or else the National Academy of Science wouldn’t have made us do all this,” he said of the quarantine. “Is the gain worth the risk you’re putting yourself to? You have to answer that question for yourself going in up front.”
“If something’s out there that’s never been exposed to the Earth environment, can it cause a problem by contamination? You’re dealing with an unknown. In the whole lunar landing mission, we were dealing with a lot of unknowns.”
For Hirasaki, though, the chance was too good to pass up.
“Basically, it was to be able to participate in such a significant mission as the Apollo lunar landing program,” he said. “I think all of us had that in mind. We were active participants; we all wanted to contribute. It was part of our job, but we volunteered to take any risks that came along with that particular job. And, you knew that there were some risks.”
Though Hirasaki got married about half a year before the Apollo 11 mission, he had already volunteered for the quarantine assignment, so his new wife knew that possible exposure to lunar microbes was just part of the package when she married him.
However, he said, the publication around that time of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, about the spread of an epidemic from space, did little to make her feel better about it.
While Armstrong and Aldrin were walking on the Moon, Hirasaki and Bill Carpentier, a NASA physician, were placed in the MQF, to prevent the possibility that they would contract an illness before the crew returned.
On July 24, the Apollo 11 crew landed, and Hirasaki’s decision to take the risk of volunteering paid off. When asked how the Apollo 11 crew reacted upon their return to earth, Hirasaki responded, “It was as if the crew were saying, ‘Hey, we just got back from this just fabulous trip that nobody’s ever done,’ and they wanted to tell everybody about it, because it was so interesting and exciting,” he said. “They reminded me of three schoolmates who had gone off on a trip where none of their classmates had ever gone, saw all these neat sights, had just gotten back home, and were trying to tell you about the things they saw and the things they did.
“And Doc (Carpentier) and I had a front row seat,” he said.
When the astronauts arrived on the U.S.S. Hornet and were placed in quarantine, Hirasaki’s first duty was to the Columbia command module. A tunnel was extended from the MQF to the spacecraft, allowing the engineer to work in its quarantined interior.
Some may wonder why all the quarantine procedures were necessary, since the command module hatch was opened to let the crew out when they landed. Surely, if there had been any lunar microbes inside, they would have escaped then into the open sea?
As with so much else about the mission, the answer deals with risk management. ”That’s true,” Hirasaki said. “It would spoil the whole thing if the pathogen could have been airborne transmitted. The reason they did that is, there is a limit of what you can do, and what risks you take.
“NASA was not willing to risk the potential injury and loss of the crew upon trying to recover the Command Module on the open seas with the crew inside.”
Instead, a quarantine procedure was developed that would allow the safe recovery of the crew, and would prevent spread of a pathogen that required direct biological contact.
“So, once again, it’s a series of trade-offs,” he said.
Among Hirasaki’s Command Module duties were the removal of the film with the pictures the crew had taken on the Moon, and the true prize of the Apollo 11 mission—the Moon rocks.
These treasures were sealed up and passed through a liquid submersion decontamination lock and sent by courier aircraft launched from the USS Hornet to scientists in Houston who were eagerly awaiting them.
In addition to his engineering duties, Hirasaki was tasked with other responsibilities to the new national heroes trapped with him.
“I was chief cook and bottle washer,” he said. “We had what you would nowdays call TV dinners. In fact, there was a device aboard the Mobile Quarantine Facility I hadn’t seen before, called an Amana Radar Range.
“See, in the ’60s, there weren’t a lot of microwaves around, so we were checking those out. You didn’t want an open flame, obviously. So we had radar ranges aboard there.
“It was interesting because JSC had prepared the meals,” he said. “And, during the sea trials that we had originally on the destroyer, we found out that the meals that were prepared were way too rich. In a sea environment, you don’t really want highly spiced seasoned food. It just doesn’t go along with living aboard ship.
“As a matter of fact, I can recall we had lobster thermador, and stuff like that. They had some very fancy menus prepared for our trials. And we said, ‘Uh-uh, that’s not what you want in that environment. Meat and potatoes are more like it.’”
“But it was much better than what the Apollo crew had (in space), the freeze-dried food,” he said.
The MQF was carried aboard the Hornet to Pearl Harbor, where it was loaded on a C-141 cargo plane, which flew it to Houston.
From there, they were transferred to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, where they spent another 2 weeks under quarantine.
“I think the crew would rather have been out, but they understood why they were there, and they went along with it,” Hirasaki said. “We had enough to do. The quarantine facility is much, much bigger than the Apollo Command Module, so there was enough room inside there. They could have their privacy if they wanted to.”
Additional NASA staff lived in the LRL, and even more joined later.
“If a person that was handling the lunar samples was ever exposed, then there was a set of rules that forced them to be transferred to our side of the LRL,” he said. “And we did have a couple of cases where that happened. So we did pick up a couple of people.”
Asked to recall the most memorable experiences with the Apollo 11 crew in the LRL, Hirasaki hesitated.
“That’s a long time ago,” he said. “And, it was all interesting; it was all very exciting.
“It’s sort of hard to imagine what it was like to have been a participant in a mission of that significance. You had an extreme sense of accomplishment. I think everybody had an extreme sense of accomplishment of having pulled off this mission. And it took everybody doing their particular part.
“It’s sort of amazing when you stop and think about the magnitude of the project, the uncertainties we were dealing with, and the time period we took to accomplish it. And, I keep wondering why we’re only where we are right now.”
That frustration was to govern Hirasaki’s career arc over the following decades. He stayed with NASA through the final Apollo landing, but then left the agency not long afterwards in 1973.
“The only thing that really was funded was the Shuttle,” he said. “Even then, Station programs were proposed, but did not have the proper backing to ensure their construction.”
“So, I said, hey, we’re going nowhere fast,” he said. “Yes, we’re going to build this great Shuttle, but what are we doing to advance manned exploration of space.”
“To me, after having gone to the Moon, yes, this is interesting, but it doesn’t seem to fit my idea of a long-range plan to advance manned space exploration.”
After leaving NASA, Hirasaki spent 14 years in the motorcycle business. During that time, the space industry once again came knocking. A former boss enlisted his help in a private company staffed with several ex-NASA employees.
“We launched a non-government-funded rocket into space in a sub-orbital flight over the Gulf of Mexico, just to show it could be done as a venture capital activity,” he said.
Finally, in 1986, he returned to NASA full-time, working on a crew return vehicle for Space Station Freedom.
Eventually, the space station became an international project, and Russian Soyuz vehicles were picked to transport crews to and from the Station and to serve as an emergency crew return vehicle. Today, Hirasaki works on systems integration for Russian and European spacecraft, making sure the Soyuz, the Progress supply ship, and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle will work properly with U.S. systems on the International Space Station.
“As long as the work is interesting, I’ll do it,” he said. While the Station support vehicle work is interesting enough for now, Hirasaki hopes things will become even more interesting, and that he’ll once again see men returning from the trip Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins took 35 years ago.
Today, though, few people still ask Hirasaki about his role in the history-making event.
“Not very many,” he said. “I think that most of the people that worked on the Apollo Program have retired and the current group of people working at Johnson Space Center have forgotten the particular roles that we played during the Apollo 11 mission.”
Published by NASAexplores: July 15, 2004