Tuesday, July 5, 2011

American Flags On The Moon: What Happened To Them Since 1969?

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first human l...Image via Wikipedia

From Denny: How many in America can remember where they were when the astronauts planted the American flag on the moon? You know they made six trips.

Whenever we celebrate our summer holiday on the Fourth of July, often our thoughts turn to remembering various places with which we associate it. Football games, the giant tattered flag waving back at us from Ground Zero on 911, Memorial Day parades and bedecked graves, the White House flag at half mast when a Senator or President dies, a flag draped coffin of a fallen warrior from a foreign war returned home with respect.

The space shuttle program ends this week in hot steamy July. Have you ever wondered what happened to those old flags on the moon after all these decades?

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man to plant the American flag on the Moon. However, it was only for symbolism, a real "I was here!" statement Kodak moment. These were purely goodwill gestures to the entire watching world by the crews of the Apollo missions. According to the United Nations, America or any other country, was not allowed to claim any of the Moon as its territory.

From Smithsonian curator Allan Needell: "By and large, the symbol was very much understood for what it was, as a symbol of pride, but also a symbol of humanitarian accomplishment."

Of course, outside America at the time the flag was considered a politically sensitive symbol. Engineer Tom Moser was part of the NASA team that designed the first flag for the moon. But he was ordered to keep his assignment quiet.

From Moser: "It was not a military, Department of Defense secret. It was just the fact that politically we didn't want the word out before the event happened."

Why was that? What could be such a big deal about planting a symbolic flag on the Moon? Well, you guessed it, plenty of technical problems raised their ugly little heads. Apollo 11 astronauts experienced trouble plunging the flag pole deep enough into the lunar soil. Once accomplished, then it was the pole itself that would not extend fully. It was designed to help keep the flag upright as well as outstretched, hopefully in a place where there was not going to be any wind.

Of course, "the best laid plans of mice and men," and the flag ended up bunching a bit instead of properly outstretched. What was interesting about this malfunction was that it helped give the illusion that Old Glory was actually waving in a non-existent breeze.  This was long before the convenience of Photoshop.

This iconic image of the American flag waving in the eternal cosmic breeze on the Moon is one of the most defining images of our American culture and time period. It would take the curiosity of a librarian from the University of California, Annie Platoff, to search out the answer to our question.

Platoff found four of the flags, including the one from the Apollo 17 mission. It's her belief that the first two flags from the Apollo 11 and 12 missions, well, sorry to say, did not survive the ignition fiery gases of the lunar liftoff.  Yep, they were probably toast.

From Platoff: "It wasn't the intention for the flag material itself to last. It was just to be there during the event - the landing and departing from the moon. We didn't have a requirement that the flag, the U.S. flag, had to withstand all the environments for eons."

Well, that's a bummer. Sometimes, these military and engineer guys just have no romance in their souls. Glad they didn't tell me now until after I grew up. It's like telling a kid that Santa Claus isn't real. And we all know the real answer to that Santa question. "We believe!"

It gets funnier. Turns out those flags on the Moon were not made out of anything special. They were just ordinary nylon flags from the dollar store, though the flags were officially ordered out of the government supply catalogue. Platoff has a theory. She thinks those flags are now darkened and more tattered now. Ya think?

From Platoff: "I would guess, over time, 40 years, the combination of sun-rot and micro-meteor impact is probably devastating. I mean it's not a pretty picture to paint. The only way you're going to test these theories is to go back to the Moon and look at the flag."

Are our flags still there? No one knows for sure. Now that the space program is mothballed we won't have any astronauts to go hunting for them. Of course, I saw in the news this week that the Russians are expecting to meet a very evolved group of off-world culture guys - aliens - in 2031. Perhaps we can ask them to take a look on their way in to planet Earth? While they are at it, maybe they should pick up a few souvenirs at the cosmic Moon shop.

Are some of our American flags still planted on the moon? Did solar winds whisk them away out into space, forever floating around the universe? Did a black hole gobble them up? Did some other off world culture pick them up as galaxy souvenirs? What do you think?

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