Close Encounters, of the Illegal Kind

As if astronauts didn’t already have enough to worry about, an obscure NASA regulation made it illegal for them to run and tell Mom they’d been “extraterrestrially exposed.”

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Little did Captain Kirk know that after he kissed a Klingon, he should have had those lips quarantined. OK, so it’s just a TV show, but skipping out on quarantine procedures after making contact with extraterrestrials was actually illegal until 1991 under an obscure NASA regulation.

The Extraterrestrial Exposure Law, enacted by NASA on July 16, 1969 (the date of the Apollo-11 launch), provided fines of up to $5,000 and prison time of up to one year for anyone who violated strict quarantine procedures after being “extraterrestrially exposed.”

In an effort to be perfectly clear, NASA provided the following definitions:

  • “Extraterrestrially exposed” means the state or condition of any person, property, animal or other form of life or matter whatever, who or which has:

    1. Touched directly or come within the atmospheric envelope of any other celestial body; or

    2. Touched directly or been in close proximity to any person, property, animal or other form of life or matter who or which has been extraterrestrially exposed [so hold back the urge…]
  • For example, if person or thing “A” touches the surface of the Moon, and on “A”‘s return to the Earth, “B” touches “A” and, subsequently, “C” touches “B,” all of these — “A” through “C” inclusive — would be extraterrestrially exposed… [Got it?]

  • “Quarantine” means the detention, examination and decontamination of any person, property, animal or other form of life or matter whatever that is extraterrestrially exposed, and includes the apprehension or seizure of such person, property, animal or other form of life or matter whatever.

NASA also stressed that the regulation applied to “NASA manned and unmanned space missions which land on or come within the atmospheric envelope of a celestial body and return to the Earth.” The rule does not apply to you and me. In other words, if the little green men land in your backyard, you have NASA’s permission to invite them in for tea.

UFO buffs note that the law has mysteriously vanished from the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, with only the cryptic legend “Reserved” to be found where 14 CFR Part 1211 used to be. What happened, says NASA public affairs specialist Elsie Weigel, is that NASA removed the regulation in April 1991 “because we never found any aliens.” Officially, the Extraterrestrial Exposure Law “has served its purpose and is no longer in keeping with our policy,” NASA says.

NASA has “reserved” Section 1211, perhaps so that similar regulations can be reinstated if the agency ever sends humans to another celestial body, or brings back samples via an unmanned probe. If the planned earthling mission to collect samples from Mars takes place on schedule in year 2009, Americans may once again be subject to the Extraterrestrial Exposure Law.

Until then, you have NASA’s consent to be abducted by aliens and return home quarantine-free.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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