When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, each successful mission raised an American flag on the landing site as an expression of national pride in one of the greatest achievements humankind had ever accomplished.
But nearly 40 years after the last Apollo mission departed from the moon, what is the condition of those flags?
Flags thought to have been destroyed by the lunar environment
A story on MSNBC reports that scientists for a long time thought that the harsh lunar environment would have all but destroyed the flags left by the Apollo astronauts in the decades since the moon landing. Extreme heat and cold, micrometeorites and ultraviolet light would have combined to have destroyed the flags over time.
New evidence suggest that our flags are still there
However, Mark Robinson, the principle investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter camera, has noted in a blog post on July 27 that recent visual evidence of the Apollo landing sites suggests that, except for the Apollo 11 site on the Sea of Tranquility, the flags are still more or less intact, casting shadows over time as the moon rotates around the Earth. Buzz Aldrin reported that the Apollo 11 flag was knocked down by the wash of ascent engine of the lunar module as the crew took off to rendezvous and dock with the command module then in orbit around the moon.But the other five flags still proudly wave.
The condition of the flags is uncertain
Robinson, in his post, suggests that even if the material of the flags still exists, the familiar red and white stripes and the blue field with 50 white stars must be badly faded. A flag left out in the sun on Earth for too long tends to fade over time. Flags exposed to the harsher conditions of the lunar surface likely do not greatly resemble the American flags familiar in all of the photographs and video of the Apollo lunar missions.
Flags on the moon
According to a NASA article on the subject of flags on the moon, the idea of even raising the American flag on the moon was a subject of some discussion in the Nixon administration. There seemed to be a contradiction between going to the moon "in peace for all mankind" and then raising one nation's flag on the lunar surface. At one point a United Nations flag was considered. But in the end, with the consideration that it was the American nation that had fully funded and mounted the Apollo expeditions to the moon, the American flag was chosen to celebrate that fact.
Technical aspects of the flag
While the cloth of the flags was made of nylon, hence the surprise by scientists that the flags have remained intact, a special design that used a telescoping crossbar that allowed the flag to unfurl was used, according to NASA. This has caused some confusion to moon landing conspiracy theories who believe that the illusion thus created of the flag waving in the air is proof that it was not raised on the airless lunar surface.
Our flags are still there
As "The Star-Spangled Banner" says, the cameras of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has thus given "proof through the night that our flag was still there." Thus far, faded or not, the American flag is still the only one that rises from the lunar surface.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.