The Orbiting Quarantine Facility: Keeping Earth Safe from Martians

OQF Diagram

A schematic of the Orbiting Quarantine Facility. Public domain image from Orbiting Quarantine Facility: The Antaeus Report, published by NASA in 1981.

What it was: A late 70’s space station intended to keep any samples returned from Mars away from Earth’s biosphere while still allowing scientists to study them. It would have been built in conjunction with a follow-up to the Viking missions which would have brought the samples back.

Details: The Orbiting Quarantine Facility (OQF) was born at a 10-week session held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1978. The goal of the meeting was to discuss how to study Martian soil samples without risking their escape into the Earth’s biosphere. Some techniques, such as building a special-purpose lab on Earth or sterilizing the samples in transit, had been discussed and analyzed before, but studying them in orbit until they could be declared safe (or not) had never been closely examined until that point. The resulting “Antaeus Report” (named for the mythological giant who lost his strength when lifted up off the Earth by Heracles) was the result.

The report suggested a station supported by the Shuttle and based around Spacelab modules. Spacelab in development at that time by NASA and the European Space Agency, with the goal of making reusable laboratory modules that would be provided for free (or cheaply) by European countries in return for seats for their astronauts on the Shuttle. Each Spacelab consisted of one to four sub-segments which could be joined together, depending on how much space was needed, producing a module that would just fit in the diameter of the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay (a four-segment module would also fill up the length of the bay). The cylindrical modules supported a variety of scientific labs with shirtsleeve environments, with the intention that they would ride into orbit with the Shuttles and then return (as they did several times starting with STS-2 in 1981 and continuing until 1998).

While the Spacelabs that were built were designed to stay safely ensconced in the Shuttle’s cargo bay, the scientists and engineers behind the Antaeus Report suggested that several of these modules could be hooked together in orbit and left behind as a space station devoted to studying Martian samples. If the samples were proven safe in the quarantine facility, they could be brought down to Earth. If they turned out to be dangerous they could be sterilized before coming to the ground or left in orbit to be studied.

One shuttle flight would raise two small Spacelab modules: one with one segment and four docking ports, and a one-segment logistics module that would contain the food and other renewables the station crew would need. They would be mated in orbit, and then a second Shuttle mission would loft a one-segment power module which would also attach to the docking module. The power module would then deploy solar panels which would bring the station to life.

A third mission would bring a four-segment habitation module where the crew would live, and then a fourth would bring a two-segment laboratory module containing a microbiology station modeled on the ones used by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Both would be attached to the docking module’s remaining docking ports, ultimately producing a figure-X shaped space station with the docking module as its hub.

OQF Laboratory Module in action

A cutaway view of the OQF’s laboratory module in action. Also from Orbital Quarantine Facility: The Antaeus Report. Click for a larger view.

A five-person crew of one commander and four scientists could then live on the station for thirty days (or longer, if the logistics module’s supplies were renewed by another Shuttle flight). There they would perform a series of tests laid out in the Antaeus Report, checking for life and ultimately leading up to what they called “Challenge Tests”: exposure of Martian soil to cultured cells taken from every phylum of life on Earth to see how they reacted.

If the samples proved to be lifeless, or if they had life and proved to be safe, the remainder of the Martian soil could be brought to a quarantine facility on Earth, secure in the knowledge that if a catastrophic breach in containment occurred, the planet wouldn’t be facing ecological catastrophe. If any doubt remained, or if Martian life was proven to be dangerous, study could continue in orbit for up to two years.

The proposal recommended putting the station in low Earth orbit, as the Shuttle could only lift the modules to about 450km. Unfortunately this allowed for the possibility that a breach in the station could infect Earth anyway—the report’s authors calculated that a small particle could drift down out of orbit into the stratosphere within 30 years, and the hypothetical nature of Martian life meant no-one knew if that was long enough for LEO’s radiation environment to sterilize it. Accordingly the report also studied sending up the most powerful possible booster that could be brought in the Shuttle, attaching it to the OQF, and using it to send the station higher into geosynchronous orbit (which was possible) or even putting it in orbit around the Moon (which wasn’t). This also led to their suggestion of how to react if, despite all precautions, the station was overrun with dangerous Martian microbes. A booster could be brought up, attached to the station, and then the whole works pushed into an “eternity orbit” 8000 kilometers high, where it could circle in isolation forever.

What happened to make it fail: The late 1970s were a nadir for NASA and the pace of exploration was much slower than it had been in the Apollo era before or in the period from about 1981 onwards (notwithstanding the stutter caused by the Challenger explosion). The whole period is littered with projects that fell by the wayside due to lack of funds and this was one of them, twice over. Not only was there no sign of money for the OQF, even the Mars Sample Return mission was dead in the water. Without a mission to support, the station never got off of paper. Even NASA tacitly acknowledged this by not bothering to publish the 1978 study that proposed it until 1981.

What was necessary for it to succeed: To start, the discovery of life on Mars by Viking 1 or 2. Actually, a few scientists argue that they did find life so rephrase that a little: results from the Viking biological experiments that were widely accepted as signs of life in 1976. The excitement generated by that might well have helped drag NASA out of its late-1970s doldrums and get them enough money to run a sample return mission.

Unfortunately, a lot more money would have been needed for the Orbiting Quarantine Facility to be built. The estimate at the time was that, for a minimum mission where the scientists on board quickly determined there was no life in the samples, the OQF would cost US$1.66 billion to build and operate. If life had been found and the captured bugs studied in orbit for two years, that inflated to US$2.21 billion. On top of this, NASA has had a history of badly underestimating space station costs (the ISS, for example was originally planned to cost US$22 billion; the actual ISS has cost roughly US$100 billion, and for a smaller station than was originally suggested too). So US$2.21 billion was probably well under what would have actually been needed—and who knows where that would have come from, Martian microbes or not.

Like the ISS, the OQF was also going to need Space Shuttle launches to be built (four of them, to be precise) and so with the Shuttle eventually pushed back from the late 70s to April 12, 1981 there’s the embarrassing possibility that the hypothesized Martian sample return mission would show up in Earth orbit only to find its quarantine station only half-built—or not even started if something like the Challenger disaster had happened in the interim.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to consider that the basic idea of the OQF—to use modules based on Europe’s Spacelab technology—did eventually work out. Three of the ISS’s modules (Columbus, Harmony, and Tranquility) are derivatives of Spacelab, and were in fact built in Italy. Who knows? NASA has been talking about a Mars sample return mission sometime in the 2020s. The ISS may end up becoming an orbiting quarantine facility after all as it approaches the end of its lifetime around 2030.

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5 thoughts on “The Orbiting Quarantine Facility: Keeping Earth Safe from Martians

  1. The missing piece with the ISS is some way to ditch the station into the “eternity orbit” if it actually does turn into a biological doomsday bomb. If you can’t do that, there’s no real point in using the station as a containment facility.

  2. Boosting the ISS could be something of a challenge, given its (deliberate) lack of structural integrity. You’d probably be best off using the existing station-keeping systems, and just loading lots of reaction mass…

    • It’s being boosted because of noxious Martian zombie viruses or whatever, though, so I wouldn’t want to be the one loading on the extra reaction mass. “Ramirez! Put this LOX on the bug-infested station!”

      Off hand I think you’d want an ion engine to bolt on, but I’m not aware of any ISS compatible sub-modules like that (let alone any big enough for this mission) that you can get off the shelf.

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