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Why is there an American Flag on the Moon?

Apollo 11 displays the Flag of These United States of America.

How did six American Flags end up on the Moon?  “It’s because American astronauts put them there,” might be said, but it was a little more complicated than that.  A basic tenet of human nature is to take simple things and make them as complicated as possible.  Deciding which flag to put on the first manned mission to the Moon was no exception.

President John F. Kennedy first proposed using an American flag by saying, “…for the eyes of the world now look into space, to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”  NASA did not take much notice of that at the time for the Moon was still years away.  In fact, only spacecraft had American flags on them and it wasn’t until Astronaut Ed White’s first spacewalk that you even saw an American flag on a spacesuit along with one on his partner, James McDivitt’s suit.  Both of the men had bought the American flag patches themselves and had them placed on their suits.  Afterwards, NASA started having all spacesuits adorned with American Flags.

But putting a nation’s flag on a spacesuit is nothing compared to the historical significance of placing a flag on the Moon.   The political aspects internationally and domestically for such an event had to be considered.  Though it would be Americans landing on the Moon, they were representing all of humanity in this historic first visit to another world.

Christopher Columbus “Planting the Flag” and claiming the land for Spain

“Planting the flag” usually means making a claim to something, usually territory or land.  Throughout history men have “planted the flag” claiming ownership in the name of the king, queen, country, church, etc. marking the land as their own.  The United States had signed a United Nations Treaty in 1967 called the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies also commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty.  A section of that treaty forbids nations from claiming celestial bodies as their own through “claim of sovereignty, by means of occupation, or by any other means.”    Since “planting the flag” up to this time in history usually meant a “claim of sovereignty”, NASA had to explore if planting the American Flag would be perceived by nations of the world as a claim or would they understand it was only symbolic.

To solve this problem, NASA of course set up a committee to explore the issue.  In February of 1969, the Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing was established.  “The committee was instructed to select symbolic activities that would not jeopardize crew safety or interfere with mission objectives; that would “signalize the first lunar landing as an historical forward step of all mankind (Sounds like something Neil Armstrong said a few months later doesn’t’ it?) that has been accomplished by the United States” and that would not give the impression that the United States was “taking possession of the Moon” in violation of the Outer Space Treaty.”

The committee looked at options such as planting the United Nations Flag, leaving a solar wind experiment that looked like an American flag, leaving little flags of all the nations of the world, or putting a plaque or marker on the surface of the Moon.   Arguments were made that since the first humans on the Moon were representing mankind, then some type of world flag such as the UN flag should be used.  Another argument in favor of the international type flag was the fact that even though most of the work and cost of Apollo was borne by the American people, NASA did have some international partners assisting in the program in a limited role including the Swiss with their development of the solar experiment, eight different countries assigned to examine any lunar rocks brought back, Brazil with its rocket sounding program, and the various nations that hosted tracking sites at their own expense.

In the end, the committee decided that only the American Flag should be planted on the Moon and also recommended the famous plaque left on the lunar lander that said, “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D.  We came in peace for all mankind.” The plaque would not have any nation’s flag on it, but a picture of the east and west hemispheres.  Small flags of all 50 states and member nations of the United Nations were to be brought along, but returned to Earth with the crew and presented to each entity the flag represented.

The night before the launch of Apollo 11 a crew of technicians supervised by Jack Kinzler, the Chief of Technical Services Division at Marshall Space-flight Center, attached the American flag and plaque to the Lunar Module Eagle.  On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deployed the American Flag on the lunar surface, a task that only took about 10 minutes but watched by the entire world.  There was no international outcry and only a few media outlets complained about the United Nations flag being left out.  A precedent was set and along with Congress’s blessing, all subsequent Moon landings had an American flag deployed at each site.

Anne M. Platoff of Hernandez Engineering Inc. has written an excellent paper on this subject, called “Where No Flag Has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” that also includes the technical hurdles NASA had to overcome to deploy the flag.  Most of the information in this post is directly gleaned or quoted from her paper.  You can find the paper here.

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Saturday, October 9th, 2010 History, Introduction to Aerospace

1 Comment to Why is there an American Flag on the Moon?

Dr. Koller
October 9, 2010

There are thousands of stories like this that accompanied those early forays into man’s first leap from earth to the surface of another natural planetary body beyond our atmosphere. This is just one simple example – albeit a dramatic and important one – of the enormous number and kinds of impacts our space program has had and continues to have on every aspect of our lives right here on earth.

I don’t think people understand the losses that will occur as we step back from our human spaceflight program and remove the most important aspects of our exploration program – namely, keeping people actively involved and interested in what is happening in science and technology.

We have already lost a great percentage of our ability to manufacture the new products we take for granted every day. If we abandon our manned space program, we’ll lose the ability to create the ideas behind those products. The result will be a second-class society that drifts slowly into history without leaving a trace of who we were and what we did.

I hope that plaque left on the moon isn’t the high point of our ventures into space.