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A very special trailer

Neil Armstrong, First man to walk on the moon

It has been more than 40 years since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, just before 11 p.m. E.D.T. on July 20, 1969—an astounding feat to those of us who witnessed it on the flickering screens of black-and-white televisions. These days, it is robots – faithful machines – that leave the Earth, travel to other worlds, and do not return, who take the giant leaps for mankind.

So one must strain a bit to recall the undercurrent of fear that ran through the celebration of Apollo 11’s astonishing triumph. Among other fears, scientists worried that the astronauts might return to Earth bearing unwanted passengers – deadly lunar microbes against which humans would have no defense. If this concern, in hindsight, appears quaint – like ancient mariners fretting about falling off the edge of the Earth – the prospect of catastrophic contamination was taken altogether seriously at the time.

Read on, as we reveal a bit of Airstream history that many witnessed, but few might recall….

airstream a very special trailer

A modified travel trailer built by Airstream met America’s astronauts on their return to earth after history’s first successful landing by men on the moon.

The Mobile Quarantine Facility, (MQF) as it was called, was aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet 3 which rendezvoused with Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Ed Aldrin and Mike Collins immediately following their splashdown 950 miles southwest of Hawaii.  It saw them safely back to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas.

Its job:  To provide biological isolation to insure against the far-out possibility that the astronauts might be carrying back to earth, micro-organisms for which there was no natural immunity or known defense.

Bult on contract to Melpar, an American-Standard Company of Falls Church, Virginia, the MQF was constructed at Airstream’s Jackson Center, Ohio, factory.  It closely resembled a standard 31-foot Airstream International and shared with its trailer cousins most of its basic construction and self-containment features.

Although mounted on a special base without wheels and with much associated special equipment, the Mobile Quarantine Facility was similar enough to the Airstreams of park and highway to prompt Airstreamers to respond as though to one of their own kind.

airstream a very special trailer

Paul Chamberlain, president of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, and Henry Geisert, past president, immediately wrote the astronauts giving them honorary lifetime memberships in the travel trailer club.

“We are extending this to you as a token of our extreme pride in your magnificent achievements during the moon landing project,” the two WBCC officers wrote.   “That pride was made all the more touching and personal as we followed your dramatic homecoming in the Mobile Quarantine Facility.

“That vehicle is a modified version of the same make and kind of trailer in which our members travel over much of the earth’s surface.”

The letter also included a message from Art Costello, president of Airstream, making Airstream trailers and towing vehicles available to the astronauts and their families ‘for travel as you please anywhere on earth.’

The trailer-like Mobile Quarantine Facility was the first major step in a detailed defense against a threat that sounded more like science fiction than scientific fact.  Yet sober scientists decided in July 1964 that the precaution was necessary.  A technical paper entitled ‘Potential Hazards of Back Contamination from the Planets’ issued by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences set the quarantine program in motion.

Knowing that the problem of quarantining the astronauts would begin from the point of splashdown, NASA scientists and engineers prepared the design parameters for a containment vehicle to meet them there, quickly cut them off from direct contact with the earth and transported them to a much more elaborate quarantine facility in Houston.

Plans called for Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to be quarantined – for three weeks, under hermetically sealed conditions – from the moment they opened the hatch of their capsule, bobbing in the Pacific. America’s newest heroes had to struggle into biological isolation suits tossed through the hatch after splashdown. (The gear was also donned by recovery helicopter pilot Cmdr. Don Jones and his crew.) When the three astronauts emerged from the helicopter to the cheers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, they were quickly transferred to the MQF. Recovery engineer John Hirasaki, who handled the Moon-dust cleanup, and NASA physician William Carpentier joined them in quarantine. Anxiety regarding a possible infection was heightened by the presence on the carrier of President Richard Nixon.

airstream mobile quarantine facilityIn a now-famous photograph of President Nixon speaking by microphone to Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, the astronauts peer out from the airstream’s rear window like kids wishing they could come out to play.  While the trio waved and smiled at the president and the press, Hirasaki and Carpentier had the historic privilege of conversing, not to mention drinking martinis, with the returning heroes. “They were really excited,” Hirasaki says. “They reminded me of a group of schoolboys who’d had an amazing adventure and couldn’t wait to tell about it.”

NASA’s technical description of the required vehicle was general in overall concept but made very specific demands upon the contractor who would build it.  As originally envisioned, the vehicle would have an overall envelope 35 feet in length, eight feet six inches high and seven feet nine inches wide.  It would be both water and air-tight.

It would contain, or have attached to its outer structure, everything required for life and reasonable travel comfort by up to six men living inside for as many as five days.  It would be transportable on the sea, in the air and on land, availing itself of whatever hookups were possible with the transporting vehicle, but it also would be able to operate fully on its own.  During its travel, regardless of what was placed, piped or conducted inside for use by the men, nothing larger in cross-section than one-half a micron (one two-thousandths of the thickness of a dime) must be allowed to escape.

Melpar won the contract, and Airstream became the subcontractor. The Melpar/Airstream Mobile Quarantine Facility apparently performed flawlessly during its long trip back to Houston.  There was no report that any breach of biological isolation occurred during the long sea, air and highway transport to the Manned Spacecraft Center.

 There the men were greeted, again through the window, by their wives, who—perhaps by coincidence—were attired in a red dress, a white dress and a blue dress. By July 28, the MQF and its cargo of spacemen, Moon rocks and two NASA volunteers had arrived at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The passengers then transferred to the much larger Lunar Receiving Lab for two more weeks of quarantine.

On August 10, Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins were released from their quarantine showing no signs of having brought back any alien form of life from the moon.  it was predicted that the MQFs would continue to be used for a time in connection with moon landings.

In the years to come, two other quarantine facilities would be on hand for the landing of the crews from Apollo 12 later in 1969 and Apollo 14 in 1971. (In 1970, Apollo 13’s Moon landing was famously aborted after an onboard explosion.) By the time the Apollo 15 lunar landing took place in July 1971, the fear of pathogens had receded and the use of trailers was abandoned. Hirasaki, who today works in Houston as a technical support engineer on the International Space Station, says his time in the MQF had little long-term effect on him. “Some people call me a lunatic,” he quips, “but that wasn’t anything I caught.”

Mobile Quarantine Facility (Apollo 11) at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Apollo 11’s mobile quarantine facility has found its final home, standing proudly at the udvar-hazy center in Dulles, Virginia.

Today, Airstream carries on the tradition of extraordinary design and hand-crafted quality that has made Airstream world-famous.

airstream a very special trailer

Following their founder Wally Byam’s credo, “Let’s not make changes, let’s make only improvements,” their latest fleet offers the latest technology advancements and conveniences in a way that is distinctly Airstream.

Come visit us at SAFFORD RV and take a look at our great selection of AIRSTREAMS.

You are sure to find your own ‘very special trailer.’



I-95 S, EXIT 118

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