On July 10, 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. At 10:56 pm eastern standard time, Neil Armstrong accomplished another first. With the immortal words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," (or something like that) Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on a major celestial object. Soon after, Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the alien surface. The two of them spent the next two and half hours exploring, taking pictures, and collecting samples.
Before they took off back to Earth, Apollo 11 left evidence of their rendezvous with the moon. Besides Armstrong's boot print and a bunch of junk, the astronauts also planted a three foot by five foot nylon American flag mounted on a pole into the ground. Subsequent Apollo missions that made it to the moon followed suit. But what happened to all of these flags? Are they still standing? Do they even still exist after nearly a half century on the moon?
As for the Apollo 11 flag, when the engine came on and the spaceship shot up away from the moon, Aldrin said he saw the flag get knocked over by the rocket blast. Beyond that, it was thought that there would be little chance the flag would survive on the harsh environment of the moon. From the extremely abrasive lunar dust to the sun's unfiltered ultraviolet rays, the flag most likely would quickly be bleached white and disintegrate.
In fact, the flag was never intended to last long. It was purchased from the New Jersey-based flag company Annin for five dollars and fifty cents (which is about thirty five dollars today). (Annin has been making flags since 1847, making them the oldest flag manufacturer in the US today.) The flag was made with basic, ordinary nylon with no intention of existing on the moon for very long, much less for decades or more. In 2008, Dennis Lacarrubba, an employee of Annin, told Smithsonian that he couldn't "believe there would be anything left. I gotta be honest with you. It's gonna be ashes."
Five other, less talked about, flags got planted on the moon during Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Apollo 13 never made it to the moon because, well… they had some problems as you're no doubt familiar. These flags were also not specially made to survive on the moon, but just ones anyone could pick up at a local store.
Apollo 17, launched on December 7, 1972, featured the last humans to walk on the moon. As astronaut Eugene Cernan and geologist Harrison "Jack" Schmitt were placing the American flag into the lunar surface, Cernan apparently quipped that if he pounded the flag extra hard into the moon, that it may just last a million years.
While no human has walked on the moon since 1972, plenty of crafts sent by various nations have orbited it, taking pictures as they went. As the technology advanced and the pictures became sharper, portions of the moon's surface were seen in great detail for the first time since 1972.
This brings us to 2012. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC for short, was first launched in June 2009. It spent over three years orbiting the moon and taking pictures with its high-resolution camera. In 2012, images sent back by LROC confirmed that all but Apollo 11's flag and possibly Apollo 15′s flag not only survived, but are still standing.
By looking at the photos from different points in the day, the movement of shadows confirm that the flags, in some form or another, are still there. Apollo 15′s flag is still generally thought to be standing, as there is footage of this after the astronauts left. But the LROC images showed no distinctive shadow for it, as with the others confirmed still standing. That said, given the other flags seemed to have survived and it was still standing after the astronauts left, there is little reason to think this particular one disintegrated when the others did not. For that matter, it's possible the Apollo 11 flag is still intact as well, simply lying on the lunar surface.
So what about the condition of the flags? The general consensus is that the colors have probably faded to white.
The LROC was also able to document other things left behind by the various Apollo missions, including tracks made by astronauts, backpacks, and rovers that were left. As technology progresses, we will soon be able to see the flags for ourselves to confirm the exact state, instead of relying on shadow movement.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:
- What the Moon Smells and Tastes Like
- Why the Same Side of the Moon Always Faces the Earth
- Why Did People Once Think the Moon was Made Out of Cheese?
- The United States Once Planned On Nuking the Moon
- The Origin of the Phrase "Once in a Blue Moon"
- Buzz Aldrin was the first person to pee while on the surface of the Moon. Take THAT Neil Armstrong!
- Buzz Aldrin's mother's name, before getting married, was Marion Moon.
- It's estimated that there are about 200 tons of space "trash" on the moon left by humans. This trash includes everything from high-tech lunar probes to discarded bags of astronaut urine and feces. There is also a good deal that was left there on purpose, including a golden casted olive branch from Apollo 11 and an urn of the ashes of the planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker. They also left three retroreflector apparatuses during Apollo 11, 14, and 15. These can be used in conjunction with a laser to tell with extreme accuracy how far away the moon is at any given time.
- One of the other items purposely disposed of on the moon by Apollo 11 was a patch commemorating the first Apollo. During a training exercise less than a month before their launch, which was to be a low Earth orbital launch test, a fire broke out in the main cabin of the command module. The three astronauts on board, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were all killed. Inquiries were launched into what happened. NASA suspended manned flights for twenty months. The space program, in general, was in serious doubt. Eventually, the fire was attributed to a wide-range of design flaws in the module.