Lessons from the Lunar Landing — Quarantine Success in DevSecOps
During these difficult times, I’d like to take you back half a century — to one of the only times when the word “quarantine” meant success.
After the triumphs of the first lunar landings, the astronauts did not return home to their families but spent 3 weeks in quarantine and a type of enforced “social isolation” — just in case they came back with Moon germs.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, before the first humans had flown in space, no one even knew how their bodies would react —could you breathe while weightless in space? could you sleep? how would the body function?
To ensure that these first astronauts would survive the unknown environment, NASA’s doctors ran a myriad of tests on the potential astronauts to ensure that the healthiest and medically best candidates would be chosen. NASA had hundreds of potential candidates and the purpose of the tests was to find the handful who were closest to perfect human specimens.
As an example, James Lovell, the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, was not accepted into the first class of astronauts because he had a slight liver discoloration, compared to the other candidates.
Lovell was accepted into the second astronaut intake and ended up having many dramatic experiences in space (as we’ll discuss in the upcoming Apollo 13 articles), but his liver was never the source of his troubles!
After a few flights, doctors found that there were no special medical problems that arose due to weightlessness or space-travel, besides a new type of motion sickness.
But by the late ’60s, while planning the Moon landings, another question arose: While the astronauts were certainly healthy enough to land on the Moon and return, perhaps they would bring dangerous microbes back with them? Was there life, albeit microscopic organisms, on the moon? Probably not, but if so, how would it affect human life?
Decades before resurrecting dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton wrote a best seller with an even more dangerous scenario — alien germs which kill within minutes of exposure in 1969’s The Andromeda Strain.
NASA’s doctors, biologists, and engineers came up with a plan; disinfect the astronauts upon landing (to make sure that anything they might carry externally wouldn’t reach other humans) and quarantine them for 3 weeks (to make sure that anything inside them wouldn’t harm them or others).
Once the astronauts landed in the ocean, Navy swimmers secured the Apollo spacecraft with a floating collar and passed biohazard suits to the astronauts.
After donning the suits, the astronauts left the spacecraft and were doused with disinfectants.
The astronauts traveled by helicopter to the aircraft carrier recovering them and immediately entered the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF)— a special travel trailer in which they would be sealed until return to Houston. Upon reaching port, the MQF was airlifted to Houston where the astronauts spent the remainder of the 21 days quarantine in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL); an entire building built for the isolation of the astronauts (and the lunar rocks and soil they brought back from the Moon). The building was air-tight and was kept at a lower air pressure than normal atmospheric pressure. This was to ensure that even if a leak developed, outside air would leak in instead of any (possibly contaminated) air leaking out.
The quarantine procedure was executed for Apollo’s 11,12 and 14 (Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon) and, since absolutely no signs of life were ever detected, the procedure was considered unnecessary for the final Apollo missions.
The purpose of the quarantine procedures was to make sure that the astronauts moved from point A (healthy, on the Moon) to point B (healthy, on Earth) without either falling sick themselves or carrying some unknown infection.
Similarly, when we develop applications and want to deploy them into production environments we need to be sure that the exact same components are moving from one environment to the other without being modified or infected by an “alien organism”. So while the astronauts were transported from the Moon to Houston by spacecraft, helicopter, aircraft carrier and truck, your applications travel through their DevOps pipeline from development (point A) to production (point B) through many different solution components.
There are many moving parts in this pipe-line, but the ones most similar to a quarantine procedure are between the packaging and the production environment. We need to be sure that the code which we have developed is safe and they carry no security risks (microbes, in the Apollo analogy). Additionally, if we are using a 3rd party component, we want to be sure that it is just as secure it is documented to be.
There are a number of solutions that perform this validation; IBM’s solution is called the Vulnerability Advisor and is available both as a SaaS solution in IBM Cloud and as a component of IBM Cloud Pak for Multicloud Management.
While the quarantine transporting the astronauts from the spacecraft to Houston had gaps — most noticeably in the when the swimmers opened the hatch to the ocean air and passed the bio-suits to the astronauts — this is because the Apollo spacecraft was not originally designed with biological quarantine in mind and adding the extra capacity (traveling with the heavy suits, filtering the air while the spacecraft was afloat and so on) would have added costs, risks and weight to the spacecraft which planners did not wish to add. Chuck Berry, head of Medicine for the Apollo flights even said: “You know, if it had been lunar plague, I don’t know what would have happened.”¹
In the evaluation of risk vs benefit, the risk of microbes contaminating the Earth during those scant seconds was low enough to be ignored.
On the other hand, the risk of having a non-secure component running in your production environment is much higher and no part of the pipe-line can be ignored. As explained by Andrea C. Crawford in a previous article, Security is a part of the DevOps pipeline which must be designed with security in mind from the very beginning.
Adopting security-by-design is a critical part of ensuring the success of any development endeavor. Stay safe — practice security both for yourselves and for your systems.
Other articles in this series:
April is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission — follow me here or on twitter at @flyingbarron for lessons from that mission. In the meantime, you can listen to the BBC’s podcast series on the mission.
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1. Charles A. Berry (NASA Oral History, 1999)