(This article is in honor of Flag Day, June 14.)
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz
Aldrin salutes the American flag at Tranquility Base. Image Credit: NASA
One of the most iconic images from the Apollo 11 mission is
of NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag on the surface of the
Moon. The decision to plant the American flag on the Moon was made rather late
in the lead-up to the mission. NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine created the Committee on Symbolic Activities for the
First Lunar Landing and appointed Willis H. Shapley, NASA associate deputy administrator,
as its chair on Feb. 25, 1969. The committee received advice from the
Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the archivist of the United
States, the NASA Historical Advisory Committee, the Space Council and congressional
committees. The most common suggestion received was to carry an American flag
and plant it on the Moon, and that is what the committee recommended to Paine.
Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, now Johnson Space
Center, selected Jack A. Kinzler, chief of the Technical Services Division, to
design a flag and mechanism to allow it to “fly” in the airless lunar
environment. With less than three months before the first Moon landing flight, Kinzler,
assisted by Deputy Division Chief David L. McCraw, designed the mechanism in
just a few days.
The flag itself
was a standard 3- by 5-foot nylon flag, with the only modification being a hem
sewed along its top edge to allow a metal rod to slide through, which gave the
flag rigidity in the windless environment so that it appeared to wave. The flag
was attached to an 8-foot flagpole that the astronauts planted into the
lunar soil. The vertical and horizontal poles were gold-anodized aluminum
tubes. The overall Lunar Flag Assembly (LFA), including a stainless steel case
to protect the flag against temperature extremes, weighed 9 pounds and 7
ounces. Thomas L. Moser of the Structures and Mechanics Division
performed the analysis that showed it would be safe to attach it to the forward
landing leg of the Lunar Module (LM), and that it would withstand the heating
from the LM’s descent engine during the landing.
and William E. Drummond of the Parachute Support Section carefully folded the
flag into its case. Kinzler then hand-carried the flag assembly to NASA’s
Kennedy Space Center, where workers attached it to the LM Eagle's landing leg just three days before launch.
Watch a video of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil
A. Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin deploying the American flag on the lunar
surface on July 20, 1969. The split screen shows the live TV downlink on the
left, synchronized with film taken by an automatic camera set up inside the LM on
the right. The photograph above is superimposed in the video at the time that Armstrong
Left: The Lunar Flag Assembly prior to assembly
and installation on the LM Eagle. Middle: From left, Thomas Moser,
William Drummond and Jack Kinzler fold the flag. Right: David McCraw demonstrates
how the LFA was attached to the LM’s landing leg. Image Credits: NASA
Over the next
three years, five more flags joined the one left by Apollo 11. Photographs taken
in recent years by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show that the flags left
by Apollo 12, 16 and 17 appear to still be standing. The first flag, left by
Apollo 11, cannot be seen and is presumably no longer standing.
The film taken
from inside the LM as the astronauts lifted off from the Moon begins after the
LM is already airborne, and the flag cannot be seen, but Aldrin claims he
caught a glimpse of the flag getting knocked over during liftoff. On the later
landings, astronauts planted the flags farther from the LM. The status of the
Apollo 14 and 15 flags cannot be determined conclusively, although it looks
like the Apollo 14 flag took quite a beating from the LM engine
exhaust during liftoff.
The flag that Apollo 17 left on the Moon is somewhat unique.
It went to the Moon and back on Apollo 11, and was then hung on the wall in
mission control. Later it made a return trip to the Moon, this time to stay. An
identical flag made a roundtrip on Apollo 17 and now hangs in mission control.
Left: Apollo 12
Commander Pete Conrad holding the flag at the Ocean of Storms landing site.
Right: Orbital view of the Apollo 12
landing site from the LRO taken in 2012 shows the shadow of the flag (at upper
left), indicating that our flag is still there. Image Credits: NASA
Left: Apollo 14
Commander Alan Shepard holds the flag at the Fra Mauro landing site. Right: Apollo
15 Commander David Scott salutes the flag at Hadley-Apennine, with the LM Falcon and lunar rover. Image Credits: NASA
Left: Apollo 16
Commander John Young gives a leaping salute to the flag at Descartes, with the
LM Orion and lunar rover in the
background. Right: Apollo 17 Commander Gene
Cernan holds the flag at Taurus-Littrow, with Earth in the background. Image
The first American flag to leave Earth was aboard Alan B. Shepard’s
Mercury-Redstone 3 flight in May 1961. The success of this flight, which placed
the first American in space, inspired President John F. Kennedy to commit the
nation to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth before
the end of the decade. The 23- by 36-inch cloth flag came from Cocoa Beach
School, located near Cape Canaveral, Florida, and was rolled up and stowed in a
wire bundle in the Freedom-7 spacecraft. Shepard was not aware the flag was
there until after his mission was over.
The same flag flew into space again in 1995 aboard the
STS-71 space shuttle flight—the 100th American crewed mission—which also marked
the first docking of a U.S. space shuttle to Russia's Mir space station.
After returning from space for a second time, the flag was
presented by Shepard and STS-71 Commander Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson for
display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Kennedy’s Visitor Complex, where it
remains today. John H. Glenn’s Friendship-7, the first Mercury orbital flight,
was the first spacecraft to have an American flag painted on its outside.
Left: The first
American flag in space carried aboard Freedom-7 in 1961, on display at the
Astronaut Hall of Fame. Image Credit: Smithsonian. Right: The first American
flag painted on a spacecraft, John Glenn’s Friendship-7, in 1962. Image Credit: NASA
In addition to the American flags carried into space and to
the Moon by astronauts, the Stars and Stripes have travelled to all eight
planets, as well as dwarf planets, asteroids and comets, carried there by an
extensive fleet of robotic explorers. The first flag on the surface of Mars
arrived via the Viking 1 Lander, which made its touchdown on the Red Planet on
July 20, 1976—exactly seven years after the Apollo 11 Moon landing and during
America’s Bicentennial year. Five American flags are leaving our solar system,
aboard Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and New Horizons. The farthest of
those, the one aboard Voyager 1, is currently 11.7 billion miles from Earth.
Left: First American
flag on Mars in the Viking 1 Lander in 1976. Right: Project Manager John Casani
displays one of the U.S. flags that had been placed aboard the two Voyager
spacecraft. Image Credits: NASA
With NASA’s plans to go forward to the Moon by 2024,
American flags will be returning to the lunar surface, carried there by the
next man and the first woman to land on the Moon. And, soon thereafter,
astronauts will hopefully be carrying American flags to the surface of Mars.