50 years ago, NASA relaxed quarantine rules for returning moon missions

Excerpt from the May 8, 1971 issue of Science News

a photo of an astronaut at the Apollo 11 moon landing site

In 2020, NASA relaxed its planetary protection guidelines for the moon. Only lunar areas that may harbor signs of life or have historic significance, such as the Apollo 11 landing site (shown), remain strictly controlled.


cover of the May 8 1971 issue

Lunar quarantine dropped — Science News, May 8, 1971

Spacecraft and men from Earth can contaminate space … with Earth-related material or organisms. But there is also a chance material returned from another celestial body could contain something harmful to the Earth…. Last week [NASA] announced it will [recommend] … that “further lunar missions need not be subject to quarantine” [because] … “there is no hazard to man, animal or plants” from anything brought back from the moon.


The last U.S. lunar mission to come back to Earth, Apollo 17, didn’t have to quarantine upon return in 1972. But missions to the moon remained under strict protocols to prevent spacecraft from contaminating it. In 2020, NASA exempted most of the moon — minus areas of scientific interest and historic sites — from those rules (SN: 11/23/19, p. 10). For missions to other planets, though, strict anti­contamination measures still apply. NASA has called for research of possible risks as it aims to land humans on Mars in the 2030s.

Aina Abell is the editorial assistant at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Southern California.