24 June 2017

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Six: Star Trek as an Exemplar of Space-Age Popular Culture

U.S.S. Enterprise filming model hanging in the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC, March 1986. Image credit: David S. F. Portree
(Excerpt from a graduate thesis by David S. F. Portree; submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for a Master's degree in History, August 1987)


No element of popular culture better exemplifies the enthusiasm Americans felt for their space program in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s than the Star Trek phenomenon. The television program, the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, aired on the NBC network in its original form from September 1966, as the last Gemini flights blasted off, to June 1971, on the eve of the launch of Olympus 1, the first U.S. space station.

The program, set on board a 23rd-century faster-than-light starship called Enterprise, might have continued for many years but for the ambitions of members of its cast. By early 1971 it was clear that both William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy, who played First Officer Spock, wished to build on their fame by tackling new acting challenges. Both would become A-list motion picture stars in the 1970s and 1980s.

For a time, Roddenberry considered continuing Star Trek with a new Captain and First Officer. Many popular actors petitioned him to take over the Captain's chair or the Science Officer's scanner. He noted, however, that the Enterprise would complete the "five-year mission" of Star Trek's opening monologue by the time Shatner and Nimoy moved on. More significant was his concern that fans would not accept the sudden arrival of a new Captain and First Officer in the familiar setting of the Enterprise.

Over the objections of Paramount Studios and NBC, Roddenberry determined to tie off the original Star Trek series. The studio and the network, for their part, threatened to continue the program with a new creative team.

Roddenberry ended the impasse in April 1971 by floating a new Star Trek series. Set "on the other side of the Federation" on board a new starship, it would star Martin Landau, one of the many supplicants who had approached Roddenberry to step into Shatner's shoes. Paramount agreed with some reservations; NBC, for its part, played coy.

The original Star Trek series, meanwhile, went into syndication, earning big profits for Paramount. Roddenberry, who treated the new Star Trek series as a given, demanded that a share of those profits should be invested in the new series so that it could "go where no television series - including the original Star Trek - has gone before."

In August 1971, the CBS network showed interest in the new Star Trek, leaving NBC with little choice but to sign on and accept most of Roddenberry's terms. Development of the new series began in October 1971 and continued through 1972 and the first half of 1973.

Star Trek's popularity and its hopeful vision of a human future in space attracted NASA's notice by the beginning of 1971. Soon the fictional space program of Star Trek began to insinuate itself into the real-life space program.

A small model of the starship Enterprise reached Olympus 1 with the Apollo 19 crew, the first to live on board the station (November-December 1971), and returned to Earth with the Apollo 22 crew, the last to live on board (July-November 1972). The model now resides in the Smithsonian.

During the Apollo 25 lunar landing mission (December 1972), which was given over to lunar surface technology testing and development, Commander Dick Gordon produced a Star Trek communicator from a space suit pocket and asked to be beamed up to the lunar-orbiting Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft Enterprise. The communicator, an actual series prop Roddenberry loaned to Gordon, was, unfortunately, accidently left behind on the moon.

The Apollo 29 crew, the second short-duration visiting crew to pay call on the long-duration Apollo 27 crew on board the Olympus 2 station, released a small herd of fuzzy stuffed "tribbles," alien animals made famous in the second-season Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" and the fourth-season episode "More Tribbles, More Troubles." They reached the station in the seventh K-class CSM; thus, going by NASA's alphanumeric mission designation system, it was CSM K-7. Space Station K-7 was the setting for "The Trouble with Tribbles."

Roddenberry's new Star Trek, called Star Trek: Farthest Star, launched in September 1973, at a time when NASA had no astronauts in space. After hosting the record-setting 224-day orbital stay of the Apollo 27 crew, Olympus 2 was boosted to a high-altitude storage orbit in July 1973. Olympus 3, the first "permanent" station, was not due to launch until December. The night before the new series premiere, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked in his monologue that NASA's astronauts were all staying home on Earth so as not to miss the new Star Trek premiere. His headline guest that night was Martin Landau, who revealed that his character was named Thelar.

The next night, the premiere of Star Trek: Farthest Star drew a record audience, with more than a third of American households tuning in. Viewers found themselves in a familiar place, but with intriguing changes.

Thelar, it turned out, was an Andorian. According to the Star Trek: Farthest Star series bible, he was the first non-Human formally promoted to captain a starship with a crew made up mostly of Humans. His starship, the Endeavour, patrolled a pie-slice region of Federation space between the Federation Central Beacon and the Galactic Core. The series partially overlapped the original series in time. Endeavour was of the same class as Kirk's Enterprise, differing from it only in detail.

Blue-skinned, white-haired Captain Thelar had a complex back-story. It grew from the original Star Trek season four episode "A Knife in the Heart," which in turn grew from the original Star Trek season one episode "Balance of Terror." Much like "Balance of Terror," "A Knife in the Heart" portrayed a Romulan incursion into Federation space.

The Romulans, it was established, were descended from the crew of a Vulcan cargo ship that had crashed on the bleak planet Zeta Reticuli B V more than 2000 years earlier, in the era before the Vulcans nearly destroyed themselves and embraced logic. Even as they increased their numbers, the proto-Romulans lost their technology. Two hundred years after the crash, Earth and Romulus had roughly equivalent technology. On Earth, the first-century Roman Empire expanded its borders; on Romulus, Sarpa the Great built the first world empire.

Romulus and Earth continued to advance, with the former outpacing the latter. In about the Earth year 1700, the Romulans fought their first nuclear war, retarding their development. Nevertheless, in about the Earth year 1900, they managed to launch settlers to Romii, a planet orbiting Zeta Reticuli A. By the Earth year 2100, Romulus and Romii were at war.

Humans, meanwhile, split the atom, established a base on Earth's moon, fought the Eugenics Wars, settled Mars, developed warp drive, and contacted the Vulcans, Tellarites, and Andorians. The Vulcans were technologically more advanced than Humans, the Tellarites roughly equivalent, and the Andorians more primitive (they were experimenting with steam and electricity when Earth came to call).

In 2163, the United Earth starship Pax entered the Zeta Reticuli system. A "wolf-pack" of Romulan vessels immediately attacked her and crippled her warp drive with a lucky shot. Because their sensor technology was primitive, they may have mistaken Pax for an enemy Romii vessel. When the Romulans refused communication and attempted to board, Pax's captain transmitted the ship's datalogs to Starfleet Command and overloaded the twin fusion reactors that powered her warp drive, destroying Pax and most of the Romulan vessels.

The Earth-Romulus War was fought almost entirely within the Zeta Reticuli system. Earth's objective was to learn whether the Romulans constituted a threat to Earth and other inhabited worlds outside their system and to attempt dialog. After the Romulans realized that they were fighting a technologically advanced alien species, their objective became to capture technology. In 2169, for example, they reverse-engineered subspace radio.

Nearby Iota Horologii, the Andorian home system, became Earth's forward base in the war. Andorian technology leapt ahead as Humans offered Andorians work in their fleet yards.

The Earth-Romulus War ended in 2174. Earth destroyed Romulan space defense facilities, leaving them vulnerable to the Romii and forcing them to conclude a humiliating treaty via subspace radio. Earth withdrew and surrounded the Zeta Reticuli system with heavily shielded asteroid bases. The Romii and Romulans continued their war. In 2254, a decade before the events portrayed in "Balance of Terror," the Romulans at last crushed the Romii. They then began to look outward.

In "Balance of Terror," Enterprise destroyed a Romulan vessel sent out by the impulsive Romulan Praetor to test Earth's resolve. The Romulans had in the century since the Earth-Romulus War developed an invisibility cloak and a powerful plasma weapon, but apparently had yet to develop warp drive. Earth, meanwhile, had replaced fusion reactors with matter/anti-matter ones, developed photon torpedoes, and become a founding member of the United Federation of Planets. Zeta Reticuli, once on the frontier, now lay deep within Federation space.

Three years after the events of "Balance of Terror," civil war broke out on Andor as its ruling clans split over continued Federation membership. Some sought to withdraw from the Federation and build an Andorian star empire at the expense of other Federation species.

On the face of it, the anti-Federation clans were archaic in outlook and hopelessly out-matched. They had, however, allied in secret with the Romulans, who had at last built a warp-capable battle fleet.

Thelar was a junior officer on board the Federation starship Lexington, which the Federation Council had dispatched to Andor in an effort to defuse the civil war. Her captain offered to mediate a ceasefire. The Romulan fleet suddenly arrived, however, and Lexington's bridge was destroyed.

Thelar became the most senior officer left alive aboard the starship. Standing before the view screen in Lexington's Auxiliary Control Room, he found himself in confrontation with the patriarch of his own anti-Federation, Romulan-allied clan, who was, it turned out, also one of his fathers.

When his patriarch and part-father ordered him to turn Lexington's weapons on the pro-Federation Andorian forces in space and on Andor itself, Thelar declared on an open channel that his allegiance was to something greater than one man, greater than one clan, and, indeed, greater than Andor - his allegiance was to the United Federation of Planets. He then destroyed the patriarch's vessel with a volley of photon torpedoes.

Thelar's decisive act changed the course of the battle. It emboldened the pro-Federation Andorian clans and frightened the Romulan Praetor. In a fit of panic, the latter ordered his flagship to go to warp without notifying his fleet.

A week later, the Federation starships EnterpriseKongo, and Potemkin drove the Romulans back into the Zeta Reticuli system as they sought to rendezvous and regroup. Following his fleet's defeat, the Praetor was overthrown, creating an opportunity for Federation-Romulan diplomacy. Romulus would eventually join the Federation, though not during the run of Star Trek: Farthest Star.

"A Knife in the Heart" had referred only briefly to Lexington's battle at Andor. Spock remarked during a briefing that the starship had been "badly damaged while scattering the Romulan fleet at Iota Horologii," so could not join the fight at Zeta Reticuli. Thelar was not mentioned in the original series episode.

Star Trek: Farthest Star was not in general about space battles. The series delved instead into relations between humanoids and truly alien species. Most intelligent species in Endeavour's patrol zone, on the Coreward side of the Federation, were non-humanoids. Portraying these species convincingly became possible through improved special-effects technology and a much more generous budget for special effects than had been available to the original Star Trek production team.

Roddenberry sought to use non-humanoid species in part to point up both Thelar's humanity and his occasionally shocking "otherness." As portrayed by Landau, the Andorian captain became a sympathetic character, but also one who sometimes created difficult social and moral conundrums for his human crew and Roddenberry's audience.

On two occasions, Endeavour encountered Kirk's Enterprise. In the third-season episode "Green Torchlight," the two vessels called simultaneously at Starfleet Headquarters, a giant space station in deep space near the Federation Central Beacon. In the fourth-season episode "Aliens," Leonard Nimoy guest-starred as Spock. Nimoy's return to the world of Star Trek made "Aliens" the most popular TV episode in the U.S. in 1978.

Star Trek: Farthest Star featured scripts by many science fiction authors. C. J. Cherryh penned "Destroyer," a second-season show, while Isaac Asimov wrote "Empire and Robots," a fan favorite of the third season. Theodore Sturgeon returned with a sequel to his original Star Trek episode "Shore Leave." Poul Anderson won a Hugo Award in 1979 for his season six episode "Conquest of Five Worlds." Frederick Pohl contributed the controversial season eight episodes "Doorway" and "Gem."

NASA maintained its link to Star Trek. Recordings of episodes - often with added special greetings from stars of both series - made their way to Olympus 3 as crew recreational cargo throughout the station's "five-year mission" (it actually lasted closer to six years, but few argued the point).

A large collection of Star Trek toys and posters accumulated on board Olympus 3. Not everyone found this pleasing. During a spacewalk, astronaut Stu Collins released eight starship models in succession and filmed them as they drifted away. Star Trek fans at first believed he did this because it "looked cool," but then Collins quipped during an orbital press conference that he had released the models "to cut down on the damned Star Trek clutter" inside the station. He then revealed that he had also released a trash bag full of toy tribbles before closing out the spacewalk.

When Collins returned to Earth, he found his office door at NASA Johnson Space Center covered with newspaper clippings reporting angry fan reactions to his "attack" on Star Trek. When he opened the door, he found letters from outraged fans piled almost to the ceiling. The letters on top of the pile, from his astronaut colleagues, contained (mostly) tongue-in-check admonishments.

Star Trek: Farthest Star ran for nine seasons. Its last season overlapped the launch of NASA's first piloted Mars orbiter mission. The crew on board the Mars orbiter Endeavour named the robots they teleoperated on the martian surface for the program's main characters. Of the six robots, Thelar, painted a distinctive blue, operated the longest. In fact, it remained functional in October 1984, at the end of Endeavour's 500-day stay at Mars, when the crew fired their spacecraft's main engine to begin the six-month flight home to Earth.

More Information

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Four: Naming Names

21 June 2017

Thirty Years of Spaceflight Outreach

Staffing the tables at Flagstaff's annual Science in the Park event, September 2012. (Alternate caption: a space goof and his progeny.) Image credit: Lisa Gaddis
The first satellite, Sputnik 1, reached Earth orbit in 1957, and in 1987 NASA was recovering from the January 1986 Challenger accident while the Soviet Union added to the newly launched Mir space station Kvant, its first add-on module. Three decades separate those events.

I think about that eventful 30-year span when I want to feel ancient. In 1987, I began my first paid space outreach project. Now it's 2017, 30 years on, the same period of time that separated Sputnik from Mir's early days. Throughout that 30-year period, I've always had some paid space outreach activity under way, be it a freelance job writing Astronaut Hall of Fame museum text, a Fellowship at NASA Goddard producing Earth & Sky radio programs, an article assignment for Air & Space Smithsonian covering NASA space suit tests, organizing world's largest Mars '88 public observing event at the John Young Planetarium in Orlando, mentoring NASA Space Grant Interns, star parties at Navajo Reservation schools as part of Lowell Observatory's outreach programs, or teaching kids about extraterrestrial life as part of a university summer enrichment program (to name only a few of my gigs). Typically, I've had several projects aimed at "selling" spaceflight in progress at any one time.

My first paid spaceflight outreach work was an Astronomy magazine article in 1987. In it, I called on people interested in space to organize and interact with people with no interest in space. Break out of space "fandom" and share the thrill of space exploration, in other words.

The article grew out of my experiences as I struggled to deal with the 28 January 1986 Challenger accident, which I felt as a harsh blow and a strong motivator to do what I could. Immediately after Challenger, I started writing regular letters to the editor, organizing displays and events, and doing talks for civic groups. I even did a couple of local TV appearances.

I think I received $50 as payment for the article. At the time I wrote it, I was finishing my graduate degree in History in the aptly named town of Normal, Illinois.

Thirty years on, I work at the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am a U.S. Federal government employee working alongside and providing operational support to planetary scientists and cartographers. I am mainly an archivist and map librarian, but I also maintain our exhibits, give tours, and organize scientist talks. Yesterday I received a 10-year service pin; tomorrow I'll show 42 teachers from 19 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and Canada around our facility. I can hardly wait.

The first big turning point in my peripatetic career was a telephone call I received from NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in May 1992. At the time, I was freelance writing - the Star Date radio show was a regular client - and presenting planetarium shows to school groups. I barely kept my head above water; hence, the day before the call came, I had taken a part-time job as a library page. The call from NASA came as a shock since I had not answered any sort of job solicitation.

It turned out that the deputy director of a part of JSC responsible for their History Office had asked her husband's best friend's brother, who was one of my editors, to recommend someone for a job that was part technical writing, part history. JSC management in its wisdom had decided to close the History Office, but there were dissenters. I was flown down to Houston for an interview in July, and on 10 August 1992, I became part of their devious plot to keep the invaluable JSC History collections intact and available.

Eventually, the pendulum swung back; a new JSC Director wanted to do a big oral history project. When those employed to carry it out went looking for documents so that they could research the careers of the people they meant to interview, the folks who had hired me magically produced the JSC History collection out of thin air.

By then, I'd moved on. After a brief (six-month) stint as editor of Star Date magazine, I launched a freelance writing career that was to last a dozen years. I'd be at it yet today, had it not been for another big turning point in my career (and, indeed, in my life). On 7 July 2007, a sleeping driver rammed my wife's car head-on on the highway a mile or so from our rural Flagstaff home, killing himself, his passengers, and my wife, and gravely injuring our daughter, who was four years old at the time.

Despite massive brain damage and seven fractures scattered across her body, she's now a normal teenager, if such a thing exists. If you're going to be nearly killed in a car crash, do it at age four, when your brain can rewire itself and your bones can knit quickly. Though she needs special education help to overcome perceptual barriers, through hard work she routinely earns a place on the Honor Roll. She likes science and writing; next year, in fact, she's taking Honors Science and Honors English.

I sense a pattern emerging. Can a desire to write about science-y stuff be inherited?

I've described the kinds of paid spaceflight outreach I did in the past and what I do today. What of the future?

Raising the Kiddo, contending with the sudden loss of my best friend and partner in life, and working a steady job so our child could have health insurance despite her obvious pre-existing conditions killed off the three book projects I had under way 10 years ago. I want to get back to those. As she grows older, the Kiddo becomes increasingly self-sufficient, potentially freeing up some of my time for new freelance projects. I have no desire to neglect her even as she becomes more self-sufficient, however.

The car crash hurt me more deeply than I understood at the time. I tackled all the challenges that confronted me in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Many people praised my "bravery." Six months after that horrible day, however, I was overcome with severe depression and anxiety attacks. Though these health conditions have abated somewhat, even now I suffer from them. My health issues have led me to try to assist others with similar difficulties, but I must be careful because sometimes their stories trigger renewed pain for me. It's a balancing act: I seek to give my pain meaning by turning it to good account, but try to avoid being overcome by it.

There's also my status as a Federal government employee to consider. I am bound by ethics rules designed to prevent corruption. These require that any "moonlighting" I do be vetted first by ethics officials to avoid a conflict of interest. I have already had a project vetted and approved, so I am hopeful that I will in the next few years be able to publish a new book. It would be my first since my 2001 NASA-published opus Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950-2000.

To end this self-serving little anniversary essay, I want to acknowledge the many, many people who have made my adventures in the past 30 years possible. Some of you read this blog; your encouragement and stimulating comments keep it alive. I'll not name names in order to protect the innocent and to avoid forgetting anyone. You know who you are. Thank you, every one of you.

20 June 2017

Safeguarding the Earth from Martians: The Antaeus Report (1978-1981)

The Viking 2 landing site in Utopia Planitia, a northern plain where water frost is seen on winter mornings. The lander touched down on 3 September 1976. A three-meter arm with a scoop on the end dug into the martian surface near the lander, collecting dirt to feed into its three biology experiments. The arm was also used to push rocks and dig trenches that enabled scientists on Earth to study the top 20 centimeters or so of the martian surface. Had the arm been able to dig down deeper - perhaps as little as 30 centimeters deeper - it would have encountered water ice and the history of Mars exploration could have been very different. Image credit: NASA
In the summer of 1978, 16 university professors from around the United States gathered at NASA's Ames Research Center near San Francisco to spend 10 weeks designing an Earth-orbiting Mars sample quarantine facility. It was one of a series of similar Ames-hosted Summer Faculty Design Studies conducted since the 1960s.

At the time, NASA actively considered Mars Sample Return (MSR) as a post-Viking mission. Agency interest flagged as it became clear that no such mission would receive funding, so publication of the 1978 design study, titled Orbiting Quarantine Facility: The Antaeus Report, was delayed until 1981.

The Summer Fellows noted that the three biology experiments on the Viking landers had found neither organic carbon nor clear evidence of ongoing metabolic processes in the soil they tested on Mars. Furthermore, the Viking cameras had observed no obvious signs of life at the two rather dull Viking landing sites.

Nevertheless, the Summer Fellows argued, "the limitations of automated analysis" and the fact that "the landers sampled visually only a small fraction of one percent of the planet's surface" meant that there could be "no real certainty" about whether Mars was lifeless. This, they argued, meant that, "in the event that samples of Martian soil are returned to Earth for study, special precautions ought to be taken. . .the samples should be considered to be potentially hazardous to terrestrial organisms until it has been conclusively shown that they are not."

Their report listed three options for attempting to ensure that samples would not accidentally release martian organisms on Earth. The MSR spacecraft might sterilize the sample en route from Mars to Earth, perhaps by heating it. Alternately, the unsterilized sample might be quarantined in a "maximum containment" facility on Earth or in Earth orbit, outside our planet's biosphere.

The Summer Fellows noted that each of these three options would have advantages and disadvantages; sterilizing the sample, for example, might ensure that no martian organisms could reach Earth, but would likely also damage the sample, diminishing its scientific utility. The scientists explained that the Antaeus study emphasized the third option because it had not been studied in detail previously.

The Summer Fellows explained the significance of the name they had selected for their Orbiting Quarantine Facility (OQF) project. Antaeus was a giant in Greek mythology who forced passing travelers to wrestle with him and killed them when he won. The Earth was the source of Antaeus' power, so the hero Hercules was able to defeat the murderous giant by holding him above the ground. "Like Antaeus," they explained, a martian organism "might thrive on contact with the terrestrial biosphere. By keeping the pathogen contained and distant, the proposed [OQF] would safeguard the Earth from possible contamination."

Five 4.1-meter-diameter cylindrical modules based on European Space Agency Spacelab module hardware would form the Antaeus OQF. The Summer Fellows assumed that the modules and many of the other components needed to assemble and operate the OQF would become available during the 1980s as the Space Shuttle Program evolved into a Space Station Program.

OQF assembly in 296-kilometer-high circular Earth orbit would need two years. It would begin with the launch of drum-shaped Docking and Logistics Modules together in a Space Shuttle Orbiter's payload bay.

The 2.3-ton Docking Module, the OQF's core, would measure 4.3 meters long. It would include six 1.3-meter-diameter ports with docking units derived from the U.S. version of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz "neuter" design. Outward-splayed guide "petals" and a system of shock absorbers and latches would enable identical docking units to link together.

The Antaeus Orbital Quarantine Facility. Image credit: NASA
In addition to the Logistics Module, Power, Habitation, and Laboratory Modules would link up with Docking Module ports. When completed, they would form what the Fellows called a "pinwheel" design. The remaining two Docking Module ports would enable Shuttle dockings, spacewalks outside the OQF with the Docking Module serving as an airlock, and attachment of additional modules if necessary.

The 4.3-meter-long Logistics Module would weigh 4.5 tons loaded with a one-month supply of air, water, food, and other supplies. After a crew took up residence on board the OQF, a Shuttle Orbiter would arrive each month with a fresh Logistics Module. Using twin robot arms mounted in the Orbiter payload bay, the Shuttle crew would remove the spent Logistics Module for return to Earth and berth the fresh one in its place.

The second OQF assembly flight would see the Shuttle crew link the 13.6-ton Power Module to the Docking Module's aft port. The Power Module would then deploy two steerable solar arrays capable of generating between 25 and 35 kilowatts of electricity. Spinning momentum wheels would provide OQF attitude control and small thrusters would fire periodically to counter atmospheric drag, which would otherwise over time cause the quarantine station to reenter. The Power Module would also provide OQF thermal control and communications.

The OQF's five-person crew would live in the 12.4-meter-long, 13.6-ton Habitation Module, which would arrive on the third assembly flight. The OQF's "command console," five crew sleep compartments, and workshop, sickbay, galley, exercise, and waste management/hygiene compartments would be arranged on either side of a central aisle. The Hab Module would provide life support for all the OQF's modules except the Laboratory Module.

The Lab Module, delivered during the fourth and final OQF assembly flight, would measure 6.9 meters long and, like the Hab and Power Modules, would weigh 13.6 tons. Not surprisingly, the Ames Faculty Fellows devoted an entire chapter of the Antaeus report to the Lab.

Spacelab pressurized modules included a central corridor running their entire length. Experiment equipment lined their walls. The Spacelab-based OQF Lab Module, on the other hand, would have a central experiment area running most of its length with corridors along its walls. Most of the experiment area would be located within glass-walled "high-hazard" "Class III" biological containment cabinets similar to those at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Antaeus OQF Lab Module included an independent life support system to help prevent contamination of adjoining modules. Grills in the floor and ceiling lead to air filters. The Mars Sample Return sample canister would enter the central experiment area from above. Visible are at least three microscopes. Image credit: NASA
Analysis equipment within the cabinets would include a refrigerator, a freezer, a centrifuge, an autoclave, a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, incubation and metabolic chambers, scanning electron and compound light microscopes, and challenge culture plates. The crew would operate the equipment from outside the cabinets using sleeve-like arms with mechanical grippers.

The Summer Fellows provided no obvious aids for crew positioning. In the illustration of the Lab module above, scientists are shown floating without handgrips or feet or body restraints. Given the delicate and sensitive nature of the work they were meant to perform, this would probably turn out to be a significant omission.

The Lab Module would include an independent life support system with "high efficiency particle accumulator" (HEPA) filters. Experimenters would enter and exit the Lab Module through a decontamination area, where they would don and doff respirator masks and protective clothing. If a mishap contaminated the Lab Module, the module could be detached from the OQF and boosted to a long-lived 8000-kilometer circular orbit using a Laboratory Abort Propulsion Kit delivered by a Shuttle Orbiter.

Following the two-year assembly period, a rehearsal crew would board the OQF to test its systems and try out the Mars sample analysis protocol using biological samples from Earth. The Summer Fellows set aside up to two years for these practice activities. At about the time the rehearsal crew boarded the OQF, a robotic MSR spacecraft would depart Earth on a one-year journey to Mars.

Two years later and four years after the start of OQF assembly, a small Mars Sample Return Vehicle (MSRV) containing one kilogram of martian surface material and atmosphere samples would fire rocket motors to enable Earth's gravity to capture it into a high orbit. The sample would ride within a sample canister, the exterior of which would have been sterilized during Mars-Earth transfer. Meanwhile, a Shuttle Orbiter would deliver to the OQF the first five-person sample-analysis crew. It would comprise a commander (a career astronaut with engineering training) and four scientists with clinical research experience (a medical doctor, a geobiologist, a biochemist, and a biologist).

A Shuttle-launched remote-controlled Space Tug would collect the sample canister from high-Earth orbit and deliver it to a special "docking cone" on top of the Lab Module. This is not shown in the illustration of the completed OQF; in its place, one finds a cylindrical "Sample Acquisition Port." The canister would then enter the experiment area through a small airlock.

The first sample analysis crew would cut open the canister using "a mechanism similar to a can opener." They would immediately place 900 grams of the sample into "pristine storage." Over the next 60 days, they would execute an analysis protocol that would expend 100 grams of the sample. Twelve grams each would be devoted to microbiological culturing and challenge cultures containing living cells from more than 100 Earth species; six grams each to metabolic tests and microscopic inspection for living cells and fossils; 10 grams to chemical analysis; and 54 grams to "second-order" follow-up tests.

If the 60-day analysis protocol yielded no signs of life in the test sample, a Shuttle Orbiter would carry the 900-gram pristine sample from the OQF to Earth's surface for distribution to laboratories around the world. Based on highly optimistic 1970s NASA estimates of Shuttle, Spacelab, and Station costs, the Summer Fellows placed the total cost of OQF assembly and operations for this "minimum scenario" at only $1.66 billion.

If, on the other hand, OQF scientists detected life in the Mars sample, then analysis on board the OQF could be extended for up to six and a half years. Throughout that period, Shuttle Orbiters would continue to deliver a steady stream of monthly Logistics Modules; they would also change out OQF crews at unspecified intervals. In all, about 80 Logistics Modules would reach the OQF by the time its mission ended. The cost of this "maximum scenario" might total $2.2 billion, the Ames Summer Faculty Fellows optimistically estimated.


Orbiting Quarantine Facility: The Antaeus Report, D. DeVincenzi and J. Bagby, editors, NASA, 1981

More Information

Clyde Tombaugh's Vision of Mars (1959)

Peeling Away the Layers of Mars (1966)

What Shuttle Should Have Been: NASA's October 1977 Space Shuttle Flight Manifest

Making Rocket Propellants from Martian Air (1978)

Astronaut Sally Ride's Mission to Mars (1987)