We’ve all seen the pictures of NASA astronauts triumphantly placing an American flag on the surface of the moon, evidence of mankind’s excursion to a heavenly body far from home. But flag planting wasn’t as easy as the astronauts made it seem.
American flags on the moon
Apollo 11, the first mission to land on the moon, learned an important lesson about the moon’s surface when they tried to plant the American flag. It has been supposed that the dirt on the moon would be like earth’s. It was not and its unusual composition made the flag impossible to plant deeply into the soil.
Unlike dirt granules on earth which are roundish, moon dirt is flattened with sharp edges. The granules tend to lock into place making for hard-packed dirt. When Buzz Aldrin tried to push the flag into the moon dirt, he found he could only punch it a few inches in, not enough to ensure American flags on the moon would remain standing for any great length of time. Turns out it didn’t matter anyway. The flag was placed only 27 feet from the Eagle craft. When Eagle took off, astronauts saw the blast of the rocket blow the flag over.
The subsequent flags (there are six total on the Moon) each presented problems of their own. Locking mechanisms wouldn’t lock and some aborted missions had to let the flag burn up inside the craft. But for the American flags on the moon that were successfully planted, are they still standing on the surface of the moon and if so, what do they look like today?
The Lunar Flag Assembly – the Moon kit containing a flag of the United States
Each Apollo mission contained a kit containing a U.S. flag. The kits were called LFA or Lunar Flag Assembly. The flags were made of nylon and hung on telescopic staffs. Each flag measured 3 by 5 feet. The flag material was held flat using horizontal bars constructed of one-inch anodized aluminum hung inside a hemmed pocket. This would make it appear to fly on the airless Moon.
For the first three flights, the Lunar Flag Assembly kits were attached to the descent ladder inside a thermally insulated tubular case to protect them from the modules 2,000-degree exhaust flames. Astronauts had to simply open the tube and remove the flag without reentering the module to retrieve it. For the last three flights, the flags were carried in the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA, an equipment drawer which opened from the side of the Lunar Module) rather than on the ladder.
The assembly had to be designed with the astronaut’s physical limitations in mind. Astronaut movement was restricted by the spacesuits they wore. Thus, the total height of the flagpole was limited to 28-inches.
The first flag cost $5.00. The tubing cost $75.
How astronauts planted the flags on the Moon
Apollo 11 presented the first problematic deployment of the U.S. flag on the Moon. After the flag was blown over by the blast of the rocket exhaust during takeoff, care was taken by subsequent crews to place the flags at greater distances from the Lunar Module.
When Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, the crew of Apollo 12, deployed the American flag on the Moon’s surface, the latch mechanism that was supposed to keep the flag horizontal, would not lock. As a result, subsequent assembly’s were built with double-latch locking mechanisms.
The landing of Apollo 13 was aborted due to a spacecraft malfunction encountered before reaching the Moon. The flag was stored externally in the MESA and was destroyed with the Lunar Module Aquarius when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.
By Apollo 15, the planting of the American flag on the Moon’s surface had been perfected. Astronauts David Scott and James Irwin had practiced on Earth how to arrange themselves, the flag, and the Lunar Roving Vehicle around the LM for the best photography. The planting went without a hitch.
The flag deployed during Apollo 17 has a unique history. It traveled to the Moon and back on Apollo 11 and hung on the wall of Mission Control afterwards. Gene Cernan erected it in Taurus–Littrow lunar valley.
Are the flags sent to the moon still standing?
The flags sent to the moon were standard government-issued nylon flags. Nothing special was designed for the unique conditions in space. Scientists thought that after several years, the sun and radiation may have turned American flags on the moon white or possibly caused them to disintegrate altogether. But a review of photographs taken in 2012 by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found flags placed during Apollo 12, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 missions were still standing (they all cast shadows). They were also able to confirm that the flag from Apollo 11 was blown over when the craft left the moon’s surface. They were unable to determine if flags from Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 were still standing.
Mark Robinson, chief scientist as NASA, explained:
“From the LROC images it is now certain that the American flags are still standing and casting shadows at all of the sites, except Apollo 11. Personally, I was a bit surprised that the flags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did. What they look like is another question. The flags may in fact be badly faded.”
American flags on the moon picture gallery
In-Article Image CreditsBuzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the moon via Wikimedia Commons by NASA with usage type - Public Domain
Apollo 15 Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin salutes the U.S. flag via Wikimedia Commons by NASA with usage type - Public Domain. August 1, 1971
Cernan Jump Salutes Flag via Wikimedia Commons by NASA with usage type - Public Domain. December 12, 1972
Featured Image CreditBuzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the moon via Wikimedia Commons by NASA with usage type - Public Domain