Last night Gregory N. Cecil, M.A.S., a 2003 alumni of the SpaceTec program (the Gemini Class) appeared on The Space Show hosted by Dr. David Livingston. The interview went so well that it went a half hour over the scheduled time. There were many good calls and email questions from all over the world and Kennedy Space Center.
You can download to the interview or listen online at the following link:
http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/1452-BWB-2010-11-03.mp3 This is the direct URL to the interview.
You can also subscribe to The Space Show podcast on iTunes and download this interview and many other worthwhile interviews to listen too.
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.