A Plague On All Our Houses

Something nasty hitching a ride. This edition published by Sphere Books 1972. Cover photo NASA.

When the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth after their epic voyage, they were immediately put into quarantine.  It seemed a little strange at the time after such a great achievement – the image of President Nixon greeting them aboard USS Hornet through the glass screen of the mobile quarantine facility was somehow rather disappointing.  But it made a lot of sense, at that stage of our initial forays into space exploration, to put them safely out of the way of the rest of us for three weeks.

By the time the astronauts from Apollos 11, 12 and 14 had all successfully come through quarantine, and the lunar samples were found to be sterile, it was fairly clear that no alien organisms were likely to make their way back to our home planet, so the procedure was stopped after that.  However, before that stage we didn’t know that there weren’t potentially nasty pathogens thriving on the lunar surface that could have wreaked havoc in the human race if they came back here unchecked.

Obviously it was known that tiny pieces of other planets had arrived on Earth for billions of years in the form of meteorites, but any life-forms that might have travelled with them would have been frozen, roasted and irradiated out in space.  Even if they had survived, it would seem that indigenous terrestrial life had evolved effective immunity to anything they brought with them, since we’re here now.  But something coming fresh, live and healthy from another world was a different risk entirely.

Science fiction had given plenty of warnings of this danger, not least in terms of what happened to the hapless Martians of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds from 1897 when they turned up here.  That proved to be the salvation of the human race, but the 1953 BBC television series The Quatermass Experiment showed a hostile alien infection attacking the crew of the first manned spaceflight, and subsequently menacing all life on Earth.  Particularly memorable was Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain where a rapidly-mutating deadly microbe comes to Earth on board a satellite.

Harry Harrison’s 1965 story Plague from Space, later published as The Jupiter Legacy, provided a vivid description of how bad it might be.  The spacecraft Pericles, a manned expedition to Jupiter, makes an unexpected and badly controlled return to Earth, having been out of contact for years.  In a scene reminiscent of the arrival of the Martians in Wells’ novel, the outer door of an airlock is seen to be unscrewing, only to reveal a very different sort of invader.  The sole surviving member of the crew is terminally ill, and a highly contagious disease spreads rapidly.

It turns out that this is not the first time that alien infection during interplanetary missions has affected astronauts, but strict quarantine and decontamination has previously prevented a major outbreak.  This time, with an incurable, fatal disease and seemingly unstoppable vectors carrying the pathogen, the inhabitants of Earth are not so fortunate.  And it only goes from bad to worse.

Indeed, perhaps we shouldn’t be too laid back about the idea of sterile surfaces, such as that of the Moon, necessarily being free from any alien life-form.  The Apollo 12 lunar module landed close to the Surveyor 3 probe, which had arrived there over two years previously, and the crew brought some of its equipment back to Earth.  It was claimed soon afterwards that bacteria which had contaminated the probe prior to launch had survived the harsh lunar environment throughout that period.  More recent research suggests that they might have been introduced back here during the examination process itself, but there is still some doubt.  Bacteria might have survived on the Moon.

Primitive organisms can be remarkably resilient – and we can only imagine what adverse conditions alien life-forms elsewhere might have evolved to survive.  And the threat they might pose to us.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

Be sociable; support the BIS!