If you’re an observant visitor, you might have noticed that the American flag on the side of the Space Shuttle Discovery on display at our Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center appears to be backwards.
No, it’s not a very large (literally and figuratively) NASA snafu. The “backwards” flag is actually part of the US Flag Code, which applies to spacecraft, aircraft, and even service members’ uniform insignia.
According to United States Army regulations, “The full-color US flag cloth replica is worn so that the star field faces forward, or to the flag’s own right.” The flag must always be positioned to look like it is flying forward, so it’s really all about perspective.
If you have the flag positioned on your left shoulder (as you can see on the Apollo astronaut’s spacesuits), then the flag appears as it would flying in the breeze on a flag pole—with the star field facing forward as the wearer moves forward. On other military uniforms, you’ll see what’s called the “reverse side flag” on the right sleeve.
This photo of the Space Shuttle Discovery and Enterprise shows the US Flag Code in action: On the side of Discovery, the flag appears as it would on a flagpole. On the side of Enterprise, you see the flag in reverse.
So, the next time you stop for a Space Shuttle selfie, take a second to explore both sides of Discovery to see how the flag positions change (and show off your flag code trivia!)