by Bill Thornbrook Forty-five years after the first Moon landing, astronaut items still fly high.
Between December 1968 and December 1972, Americans voyaged to the Moon nine times. In all, twenty-four astronauts made the trip, three of them going twice. Two preliminary test missions closely approached the Moon without landing. Finally, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 crew members Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., descended to the lunar surface. They became the first humans to reach another world. Five more successful Moon landings followed. In all, twelve men left boot prints in the trackless dust.
A significant highlight of the first landing was the ten-minute ritual of raising an American flag on the Moon. In the time-honored tradition of global exploration, planting a national emblem symbolizes conquest–and very often possession–of a new territory. The decade-long American and Russian race into space had ended with Apollo’s triumphant arrival at Tranquility Base, yet the United States did not assert ownership. Instead, the astronauts left behind a plaque proclaiming, “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Aldrin, soon after emerging from the lunar lander Eagle as the second man on the Moon, joined Armstrong in setting up the flag. The 5-by-3- foot nylon standard had been purchased for $5.50 at a Houston Sears store shortly before the mission. Stowed with its telescoping eight-foot pole in a protective case, it was attached to the descent ladder of the ungainly craft that had ferried the astronauts from the orbiting command module down to the lunar surface.
Since no breeze would unfurl the banner in the Moon’s airless environment, NASA technicians had hemmed its top edge over a fold-out arm that could be extended to display the flag to best advantage. The task of manually pushing the flag staff into the compact soil and then deploying the tight joint proved difficult for two men wearing inflated suits and stiff gauntlets.
In the end, Aldrin recalls, “The flag remained upright, but precariously so, and I dreaded the possibility of the flag collapsing into the lunar dust in front of the TV camera.” Old Glory held its place for the duration of the 21-hour lunar excursion. Then, as the visitors blasted off to rejoin Mike Collins in the command module, Aldrin looked up from his on-board computer just as the flag fell over.
The precious hours NASA allotted to each lunar landing team were tightly choreographed. The brief time on the Moon’s surface had to accommodate exploration and experiments, rock collecting, sleep and other housekeeping chores. But positive public response to the first flag-raising persuaded NASA to program a few minutes for setting up an American flag at each new lunar base camp.
By turns, later Apollo mission astronauts photographed one another paying their respects to the Stars and Stripes on the alien landscape. Several posed a bit self-consciously, some saluted with military precision, and one literally leapt for joy as he paid homage to his country’s flag. By their regard, the Apollo astronauts acknowledged not only their own individual accomplishments, nor even one nation’s triumph, but a singular achievement of humankind.
Today, 45 years after Apollo 11, one can hardly imagine a scene more evocative of what has been called “the American century” than a photo of a U.S. astronaut saluting the Stars and Stripes on the Moon. When enhanced by that astronaut’s personal autograph, the picture becomes even more profoundly interesting. Assembling a set of individual photographs hand-signed by all twelve moonwalkers from the six successful lunar missions can be a significant challenge. Now that the days of manned lunar exploration are apparently far behind us, acquiring images of these astronauts on another world stirs competition among space collectors.
In 2012, high resolution photos returned by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed that flags remain upright at all the Apollo landing sites except the first. By now, though, the banners themselves are believed to be sun-bleached and tattered by micrometeorites.