One of the most iconic images from the Apollo 11 mission is of Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag on the surface of the Moon. It was a standard 3-by-5-foot nylon flag, with the only modification being a hem sewed along its top edge to allow a metal rod to slide through – that gave the flag rigidity in the windless environment so that it appeared to wave. The flag was attached to an 8-foot flagpole, gold-anodized aluminum tube, that the astronauts planted into the lunar soil.
HOW WAS THE FLAG AND ASEMBLY CARRIED TO THE MOON?
According to NASA, the overall Lunar Flag Assembly, including a stainless steel case to protect the flag against temperature extremes, weighed 9 pounds 7 ounces. The assembly was attached to the forward landing leg of the Lunar Module Eagle three days before launch.
The video here shows Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin deploying the flag on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The split screen shows the live TV downlink on the left, synchronized with film taken by an automatic camera set up inside the LM on the right.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE FLAG TODAY?
The flag left by Apollo 11 cannot be seen in recent years by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and is presumably no longer standing. The film taken from inside the lunar module as the astronauts lifted off from the Moon begins after the module is already airborne and the flag cannot be seen, but Aldrin claims he caught a glimpse of the flag getting knocked over during liftoff. But, over the next three years, five more flags joined the one left by Apollo 11. Photographs show that the flags left by Apollo 12, 16 and 17 appear to be still standing. On the later landings, astronauts planted the flags farther from the lunar module. The status of the Apollo 14 and 15 flags cannot be determined conclusively, although it looks like the Apollo 14 flag took quite a beating from the lunar module engine exhaust during liftoff.
ALL WAS NOT LOST!
The good news is that, flag-wise, all was not lost from the Apollo 11's trip to the moon. The flag that Apollo 17 left on the Moon was a flag that went to the Moon and back on Apollo 11. It had hung on a wall in Mission Control until it made a return trip to the Moon, this time to stay.