Joseph Amundsen’s recent Cosmic Quiz Question asks why the flags placed on the moon by the Apollo astronauts appear to be flapping in the wind.
Placing flags on the moon is something NASA thought a lot about when they were planning the Apollo missions in the mid 1960’s. NASA even went so far as to create a “Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing” to figure out how best to have the astronauts carry out their PR duties on the moon without jeopardizing either their safety or their extensive science to-do list.
The 1967 United Nations “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” (which the U.S. signed) included this prohibition: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of occupation, or by any other means.”
So why then plant a flag on the moon? For the symbolism, of course! Just as people feel the need to stick flags on the summits of mountain peaks, NASA wanted to put a US flag on the moon as a way of saying, “Look everyone! Americans are on the moon!”
Having astronauts plant the flag once on they’re on the moon was easier said than done. The Lunar Module (LM) was already crowded with equipment and supplies and there was no room to spare in the LM for the flag. Weight was a critical issue. The astronaut’s bulky, pressurized space suits meant that they’d have limited range of motion and limited dexterity with their gloves. This meant that the flag had to be simultaneously lightweight, compact, and extremely simple to set up.
NASA engineers, being extremely clever people, figured out a way to package telescoping poles and a folded flag into a small, narrow container and mount it on the ladder the astronauts would use to get out of and back into the LM.
NASA bought the flags that are on the moon for $5.50 each from a commercial flag manufacturer through standard government contracts, and then spent several hundred dollars insulating each flag kit package to protect them from the 2,000 degree temperatures that the packages would experience during landing because they were in the vicinity of the LM’s decent engine’s flaming exhaust.
July 20, 1969! “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Millions of people around the world (including 14 year-old me) watched as Aldrin and Armstrong detached the flag kit from the ladder, placed the flag on its vertical and horizontal poles, and then… the telescoping mechanism on the horizontal pole stuck. It wouldn’t fully extend, leaving the flag still somewhat scrunched-up. The astronauts fiddled with it for a minute or two without success and then decided that, hey, it actually looks better this way!
Other Apollo astronauts, seeing this, all agreed that the flag in fact did look better this way, and decided that they, too, would only partially extend their horizontal flag supports and thus create a more “natural” looking flag when it was their turn to plant their flags on the moon – which they all did.
And regarding the “flapping” of the moon flags in certain movies of the Apollo astronauts working on the moon, remember that the moon is completely airless and has 1/6th the surface gravity of Earth. This means that the slightest bump will set the flag’s fabric into motion and it will continue to “flap” for far longer than you’d expect fabric to if were on Earth.
And if you’re part of the 6% of the population who really believe the moon landings were faked and you want to argue, well, I’m sorry, that’s an invitation to just waste both of our time.