Lunar Flag Assembly

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Buzz Aldrin salutes the first American flag erected on the Moon, July 21, 1969

The Lunar Flag Assembly (LFA) was a kit containing a flag of the United States designed to be planted by astronauts on the Moon during the Apollo program. The nylon flags were hung on telescoping staffs and horizontal bars constructed of one-inch anodized aluminum tubes. The flags were carried on the outside of the Apollo Lunar Module, most of them on the descent ladder inside a thermally insulated tubular case to protect them from exhaust gas temperatures calculated to reach as high as 2,000 °F (1,090 °C). The assembly was designed and supervised by Jack Kinzler, head of technical services at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. Seven such flag assemblies were sent to the Moon, six of which were planted (the exception being the one carried on Apollo 13 which had to abort its landing due to a serious spacecraft failure). Six of the flags were ordered from a government supply catalog and measured 3 by 5 feet (0.91 by 1.52 m); the last one planted on the Moon was the 6-foot (1.8 m)-wide flag which had hung in the Mission Operations Control Room in the Manned Spacecraft Center for most of the Apollo program.

Political background[edit]

In January of 1969, President Richard M. Nixon set an international tone for the Apollo program in his inaugural address:

As we explore the reaches of space, let us go to the new worlds together -- not as new worlds to be conquered, but as a new adventure to be shared.

This stirred discussion within NASA of the idea of having the astronauts plant a United Nations flag on the first landing.[1][2] Acting NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine appointed a Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing on February 25, which he instructed to select symbolic activities that would not jeopardize crew safety or interfere with mission objectives; that would "signalize [sic] the first lunar landing as an historic forward step of all mankind 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 of 1967. The committee considered several options, including leaving the UN flag, a United States flag, a set of miniature flags of all nations, and another commemorative marker on the surface.[3] The committee recommended leaving the U.S. flag, along with a commemorative plaque bearing the inscription "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind", attached to the Lunar Module descent stage which would be left on the Moon.

Some Americans anticipated possible controversy over planting the United States flag on the Moon, since territorial claims to any extraterrestrial body were prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty.[4] But since it was made clear the United States had no intention of making a territorial claim to the Moon, no serious controversy materialized. In fact, the United States Congress passed a bill in November 1969, stating "the flag of the United States, and no other flag, shall be implanted or otherwise placed on the surface of the moon, or on the surface of any planet, by members of the crew of any spacecraft ... as part of any mission ... the funds for which are provided entirely by the Government of the United States. ... this act is intended as a symbolic gesture of national pride in achievement and is not to be construed as a declaration of national appropriation by claim of sovereignty", signed into law by President Nixon.[4]

Design[edit]

The first Lunar Flag Assembly, carried on Apollo 11, prior to packing and mounting on the Apollo Lunar Module ladder

About three months prior to the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission, Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) and a member of the Committee on Symbolic Activities, asked Jack Kinzler, head of technical services at MSC (known as "Mr. Fix It" in the agency) to design the flag assembly. Kinzler came up with the idea of inserting a horizontal pole through a hemmed pocket in the top of the flag to support it and make it appear to fly on the airless Moon as it would in the wind on Earth, from the memory of his mother hanging curtains during his childhood.[5] He worked out the details over several days, assisted by Deputy Division Chief Dave McCraw. Kinzler also suggested, designed, and oversaw the creation of the commemorative plaques affixed to all the Apollo Lunar Modules.[5]

Though the flag itself was a simple, off-the shelf 3-by-5-foot (0.91 by 1.52 m) nylon flag from the government supply catalog, altered only by sewing the top hem, its packaging, tolerance of environmental conditions, and means of deployment presented minor engineering challenges. The horizontal and vertical poles were each made of one-inch aluminum tubes in two telescoping parts, anodized with a gold color. The total height of the flagpole was limited by the astronauts' 28-inch (71 cm) minimum and 66-inch (170 cm) maximum working height reach limits in their spacesuits inflated in vacuum. The flag cost $5.50, and the tubing cost $75.

The flag assembly was stored immediately behind the left side of the LM ladder, where temperatures were calculated to reach 250 °F (121 °C) due to the descent engine exhaust for most of the landing, but to climb as high as 2,000 °F (1,090 °C) during the final 13 seconds at touchdown. Therefore the flag had to be packed inside a dual-walled protective shroud consisting of a stainless steel outer case separated from an aluminum layer by Thermoflex insulation, with several layers of Kapton thermal insulation foil between the inner case and the flag; this limited the temperature to which the flag was subjected to 180 °F (82 °C). The shroud was estimated to cost several hundred dollars.

The complete package needed to be as light as possible so as not to cut into the lunar payload, and weighed 9 pounds 7 ounces (4.3 kg).

The Apollo 12 crew could not get the horizontal pole to latch at the proper 90° angle.

The crew of Apollo 12, Charles P. "Pete" Conrad and Alan Bean, had trouble with the latch mechanism which was supposed to keep the supporting pole horizontal, so the flag they deployed drooped at an angle. In response to this, the assembly was improved to include a double-latch locking mechanism for subsequent missions.

The flags deployed on the last three landing flights were carried in the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA), an equipment storage drawer which opened from the side of the Lunar Module, rather than on the ladder, eliminating the need for the thermal protection shroud.

The flag carried on the final landing, Apollo 17, measured 20% wider and higher than the others, being the one which had hung in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) in the Mission Control Center through all the prior Apollo landings.[6] Therefore it required a 6-foot (1.8 m) long horizontal pole.

Flags deployed[edit]

Harrison Schmitt poses by the American flag deployed on Apollo 17, December 11, 1972. The Earth is visible above the flag, which used to hang on the wall in the Mission Operations Control Room.
Mission Date Location Erected by
Apollo 11 July 21, 1969 Sea of Tranquility Neil Armstrong
Buzz Aldrin
Apollo 12 November 19, 1969 Ocean of Storms Charles "Pete" Conrad
Alan Bean
Apollo 14 February 5, 1971 Fra Mauro formation Alan Shepard
Edgar Mitchell
Apollo 15 August 1, 1971 Hadley-Apennine David Scott
James Irwin
Apollo 16 April 21, 1972 Descartes Highlands John Young
Charles Duke
Apollo 17 December 11, 1972 Taurus–Littrow Eugene Cernan
Harrison Schmitt

Buzz Aldrin reported that the Apollo 11 flag, placed about 27 feet (8.2 m) from the centerline of the Eagle landing craft, was blown over by the blast of the rocket exhaust during takeoff.[7] Because of this, care was taken by subsequent crews to place the flags at greater distances from the Lunar Module.

The landing on Apollo 13 was aborted due to a major spacecraft malfunction encountered before reaching the Moon. The flag carried on that flight was destroyed with the Lunar Module Aquarius when it reentered the Earth's atmosphere.

The flag deployed on the final landing, Apollo 17, was the 6-foot (1.8 m)-wide flag which had hung in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) during the Apollo program. Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt carried a second, identical flag to the Moon and back, and presented it to flight controller Gene Kranz after the flight to replace the one left on the Moon.

A review of photographs taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) indicates that flags placed during the Apollo 12, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 missions were still standing as of 2012.[7] Some experts theorize that the colors of some flags may have turned white due to sunlight and space radiation, or that the fabric might have disintegrated entirely.[8]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Richard Nixon, "Inaugural Address, January 20, 1969," in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon -- Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President 1969 (Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1971).
  2. ^ George M. Low, memo to Director of JSC, 23 January 1969, on file at the JSC History Office.
  3. ^ T. O. Paine, NASA Acting Administrator, memo to Associate and Assistant Administrators and Center Directors, 25 February 1969, on file at the NASA Headquarters (HQ) History Office; George M. Low, memo to Director of JSC, 23 January 1969, on file at the JSC History Office; Willis H. Shapley, NASA Associate Deputy Administrator and Chairman of the Committee on Symbolic Activities, memos to Dr. Mueller of the Apollo Program Office, 19 April 1969 and 2 July 1969, and memo to the Administrator of NASA, n.d., on file at the NASA HQ History Office; Leonard Jaffe, Director for Space Science and Applications Programs, memo to the Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications, 13 March 1969, on file at the NASA HQ History Office.
  4. ^ a b Platoff 1993.
  5. ^ a b Johnson, Sandra L. (Fall 2008). "Red, White & Blue: U.S. Flag at Home on the Moon". Houston History Magazine 6 (1): 60. Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  6. ^ Fincannon, James; Jones, Eric M., "Apollo 15 Flag Deployment", Apollo Lunar Surface Journal 
  7. ^ a b Fincannon, James (Apr 12, 2012). "Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition?". Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. NASA. Retrieved 1 Aug 2012. 
  8. ^ Beatty, Kelly (July 30, 2012). "Viewing the Flags of Apollo". Sky & Telescope. Retrieved 1 Aug 2012. 

References[edit]