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.
“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.
These are challenging times right now for our nation’s Human Space Flight program and the aerospace workforce in general. With the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program and the future of America’s HSF in doubt, there is cause for pessimism. But, I don’t think that all is lost or doomed.
I’ve been a “space nut” ever since I first saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon and when I was first hired to work on the Space Shuttle fleet, it was a dream come true. I used to get up every day, kiss my wife goodbye, and say to her “I’m going to work on my spaceship!” I remember reading an article once quoting an engineer working on the Mars Rovers who when asked at a dinner party what he did at work, he replied, “I drive a rover around on Mars. What do you do?”
These are the unique experiences we all have. Out of the billions that live in this world, just a few thousand of us have had the experiences being part of space exploration. Every day was an adventure at Kennedy Space Center and though some days the particular job I was doing may not be “fun”, KSC was still the coolest place to work. The same applies at all the NASA centers no matter if you were working in HSF or planetary probes, etc. Those memories and experiences cannot ever be taken away once you have lived them.
Working in a space program requires you to be a problem solver. While others in this world were trying to figure out what to wear for the day or what fast food restaurant to have lunch at, you were figuring out unique problems and solving them so you could once again “touch the heavens” and make our world a better place.
With the unknowns facing our workforce right now, those problem solving skills need to be used to the fullest extent, not just in a space program, but in your own personal lives and careers. How can you survive the time between programs? How can you influence what HSF program will come into being? What can you do to make yourself more marketable? If you are currently a student in an Aerospace Technology program, you might ask, “Is there any hope that I will get to use my degree in a space program?” For those questions and many others, I have some humble advice.
Increase Your Vision
Kennedy Space Center, or Marshall, or Houston, etc. are not the only space centers in this great world of ours. Too many people become focused on the one space center in their area that they forget that NASA, private companies, and other countries have space centers throughout the world. With English being the common language for airlines and science in this world, you already have an advantage being able to speak the language. You can apply to other space centers and combine your adventures working in space flight with living in a new place.
Be a Problem Solver Outside of Work
What can you do to survive while awaiting the next program? You have an experience that most people in this world will never have. You may want to try to find a way to communicate that experience and share it with other people. You can do this with a blog, lectures, write a book, or maybe teach. As a technician, why can’t you build a “Launch Control Center” with bells, buttons, and blinking lights to enhance some child’s experiences with his model rocket he got for
Christmas and sell them? The media and the government may not be too interested in space flight right now but Joe Public still is. You are truly limited by only your imagination on how to share these experiences with other people and profit from it.
Be Politically Aware and Active
Whether you like it or not, politicians determine our programs and fund it. Nearly all of these politicians couldn’t tell the difference from the nose of the Space Shuttle to the tail. Most people in aerospace think that only CEO’s and rich entrepreneurs have exclusive access to our politicians, but that is not true. You have access also through email, regular mail, town hall meetings, phone calls, etc. You can find your contact info at this website. You just need to input your zip code. Use these methods of communication to teach your politicians about space exploration and why it is important to our nation. Remember, these politicians actually work for you and they need to hear from you. Ask them what HSF plan they support. Did you know there are four leading HSF plans out there right now? Educate yourself as to what each of these plans are and decide for yourself if any of them are right for our nation or if another plan not being thought of right now is better and let your politicians know. Tell them why you think the plan you’ve chosen is the right one and be specific about it. Ask them if they support your plan and don’t accept a general answer such as “I support the space program.” Ask for specifics. Be a frequent communicator and teacher with your politicians. Just because you are a technician does not mean you don’t have credibility to lobby your politicians for what you think is right for our nation’s HSF program. Vote for and donate to the campaigns of the politicians that share your dream. Support them by working in their campaign office as a volunteer.
Be Aware of Your Industry
Learn as much as you can about all the different space programs, ones that are currently in place and ones that are coming online. Broadening your knowledge about the different space programs out there gives you an advantage to seeing opportunities to find work that others may miss. Check out their websites, get on their press release email lists, network with people inside those programs, go to various space websites and participate in the comment forums. If you work on satellites as a technician, did you know that NASA has programs that send satellites into the upper atmosphere via balloons? How can your skills translate to that program if your current program ends?
Don’t Stop Learning
Some people think that once they obtain their degree and learn their job, they don’t need to learn anymore. You should always be stretching and growing or you risk being left behind once your program ends. If you are a technician on the Space Shuttle, think about learning about robotics, composites, etc. Look at other space programs, both current and future ones, and make an educated decision as to what their needs will be, and then get certified or degreed in those areas so you can be more marketable. The worst thing you could do is just sit home and collect unemployment waiting on a space program to call you. Get out there and add to your education and pursue those opportunities.
Most Importantly Do Not Give Up Hope
“Chance favors the prepared” as the old saying goes. Being an aerospace technician has already given you the most important skill set and that is problem solving. Make use of it in your pursuit to further your career and you will be surprised at the potential opportunities that will come your way.
Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments area as to what our community of technicians can do to weather these uncertain times.
This is a discussion forum unlike many on the web today. It’s actually an adjunct to a serious professional development site run for the National Science Foundation, and as such, it has a defined goal and some boundaries within which we operate. Even so, we have an enormous amount of flexibility in what we do, and that’s a good thing because it’s required for our success in a very large endeavor – preparing the next generation of space explorers to reach out and touch the stars.
Blogs are many things, depending on both the people who prepare them and those who choose to tune in and contribute. I hope you find on this blog the opportunity to learn some new things about our current and future space programs, and to leave your own “mark” among the many thoughts that we hope will take up residence here. We ask only that you maintain an open mind, use decent language, and engage in respectful debate as we explore for ourselves some of the most interesting and challenging work available to humans today – the fruitful exploration of space using both manned and unmanned means.
This blog is sponsored by SpaceTEC® – the nation’s only Center designated as a focal point for education and credentialing of aerospace technicians. Although many know about the engineers, scientists, and astronauts who make the news from time to time, few know much about the lives and careers of the people who touch the hardware and operate the software that powers the machines designed to take men, women, and robotic probes into deep space and eventually on to the surfaces of planets well beyond our own small solar system.
If you want to know more about what it takes to begin a career as an aerospace technician or to join in discussions about the world of hands-on work in some very fascinating fields, this is the place for you. Sign on, join in, and let us hear from you. With a little luck you’ll find friends and ideas that stimulate your interests and cause new ambitions in your life. One thing is for sure; as quoted from Ken Blanchard, who helped author the book: “One Minute Manager”, none of us is as smart as all of us.
Let’s have some fun as we make things better, pass along what we know about this world, and reach for the stars.