So I see that the top story on Reddit (atm) is about how the astronauts had to come through Customs when they returned from the Moon.

Yup, I recall writing that one.. ooh, was it really as long as as February 2001? Yes it was. Text below: it appeared on February 19 2001. Maybe it’s still there somewhere on the Indie site. (Update: yes it is.) Nothing new under the sun. Tom Wilkie, who was science editor when I joined, felt it was time to move on when the same story came around the third time (life on Mars, are we all doooooomed, how old is the universe, etc). Now I think: only three times? With the web, that only gives you about four years maximum.

Which reminds me that I must get my full-text articles database up. Code is written, only remains to load it in and generate an interface.


First published in The Independent February 19 2001; you can link, but please don’t copy. A side note: this appeared as the “basement” (the story on the bottom of the page) of the broadsheet, light relief from whatever was the main news that day. No room for such frivolities these days.

It was a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind, but for the US Customs it was just another day at the office. Which is why when the triumphant crew of Apollo 11, led by Neil Armstrong, returned to Earth, one of the first questions they faced was: are you going through the red channel or the green channel?

Documents which have just come to light via the Internet show that even if you’ve just travelled to the Moon and back – especially if you’ve just travelled to the Moon and back – the US Customs wants to know what you’ve got. Anyone who has visited the US will be familiar with the huge litany of items which travellers are required to declare, such as plants, drugs and other preparations.

Historians at the US space agency Nasa have confirmed that the document, headed “General declaration” and signed by the three crew members, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, is authentic. It lists the departure point as “Moon” and arrival as “Honolulu” on July 24, 1969, where the travellers set foot on Earth again after splash-landing in the Pacific Ocean.

But what, Customs wanted to know, was in those bags? “Moon rock and Moon dust samples”, the crew responded. How many people had disembarked or joined the round trip from Cape Kennedy? Thankfully, the answer to both was “nil”: no lost souls and no extra aliens. And was anyone ill, and were there “any other conditions on board which may lead to the spread of disease” – which in this case would presumably be mysterious space viruses? “To be determined”, the crew responded to the latter question, though the test of time suggests that nothing untoward happened.

It is unclear whether this practice became the pro forma for returning lunar astronauts from Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17? “We have a lot of records here, but that would be something really for Customs,” said Colin Fries of Nasa historian’s office. “We think that maybe it was one of those cases where everyone was trying to get in on the act, because it was such a big thing, after all.” But he is not certain that other crews did not also have to fill out a similar form: “it’s hard to prove a negative”, he commented.


And here’s the scanned image, from (I think, from memory) Steve Bellovin.