By the Moon's Early Light

Posted on Thu, June 11, 2009

 Flag Day is June 14 and it reminds me of one of the most famous "stars and stripes" in history -- the one left on the Moon by the Apollo 11 crew in 1969. I remember clearly that day when, as a teenager, I watched with my family as the flag was planted on the lunar surface. It brought chills to us all.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an Apollo 11 Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on the lunar surface. The Lunar Module (LM) is on the left, and the footprints of the astronauts are clearly visible in the soil of the Moon. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this picture with a 70mm Hasselblad lunar surface camera. While astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the LM, the "Eagle", to explore the Sea of Tranquility region of the Moon, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) "Columbia" in lunar-orbit. NASA GRIN #GPN-2001-000012

It was only later that many people began to wonder why the flag appeared to be waving as if catching a breeze. How could a flag move where there is no wind, people wanted to know. But there is a simple explanation. NASA engineers, who must have had premonitions of a flag hanging limply in one of the most historic scenes ever captured on film, designed the Moon flag, and all subsequent ones, with a horizontal bar that allowed them to "fly" without the benefit of a breeze. I guess if you're clever enough to land a man on the Moon, you're clever enough to make a flag stand up horizontally.

Apollo Lunar Module number 2 on display in the Lunar Exploration Vehicles gallery at the Museum in Washington, DC.

 You can see a replica of one of these flags -- and see for yourself how it "waves" without wind -- in the Lunar Module display in the National Mall building's Lunar Exploration Vehicles exhibition.

Altogether, Apollo Moon missions have left six American flags on the lunar surface, but all are symbolic, not representative of any territorial claim. The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space precludes any territorial claims on the Moon.

For an interesting (though a bit technical) story about the creation of the Moon flags (and why they "wave"), read Where No Flag has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon.

So maybe next time you are at a night game at your favorite baseball park and see the flag waving high above the crowd, look beyond to the Moon and think of the six flags flapping in the “breeze” out there too.

Share your memories or thoughts about the Apollo Moon landings on our 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Web site

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