NASA landed on the Moon 50 years ago on July 20, 1969, just eight years after Project Apollo started. The monumental achievement saw the first two men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, walk on the surface of the Moon. More than 600 million people watched the Moon landing live, from Commander Armstrong’s “one small step” to the planting of the US flag. But after half-a-century of being of exposed to the vacuum and radiation of space, what has happened to the lonely US flag on the Moon?
Between Apollo 11 in 1969 and the last lunar landing of Apollo 17 in 1972, NASA astronauts planted a total of six flags on the Moon.
The goal was simple – plant an American flag on the Moon in a symbolic gesture to the US taxpayer and the people who made the lunar landings possible.
Each flag was specially designed and constructed to stay upright in the alien conditions of the Moon.
NASA said: “They designed a flagpole with a horizontal bar allowing the flag to ‘fly’ without the benefit of wind to overcome the effects of the moon’s lack of an atmosphere.”
However, satellite snapshots taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show many of the US flags have not survived the last 50 years.
And the Apollo 11 flag may have been the very first to collapse, according to Buzz Aldrin.
The Lunar Module (LM) pilot told NASA after returning to Earth on July 24, 1969, he thought he saw it topple when the LM took off back to Earth.
NASA said: “The film taken from inside the LM as the astronauts lifted off from the Moon begins after the LM is already airborne and the flag cannot be seen, but Aldrin claims he caught a glimpse of the flag getting knocked over during liftoff.
“On the later landings, astronauts planted the flags farther from the LM.”
But what about the other NASA flags? LRO images show the Apollo 12, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 flags are still standing on the Moon.
The US space agency is uncertain about the fate of the Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 banners.
There is a strong likelihood the Apollo 14 flag “took quite a beating from the LM engine exhaust during liftoff”.
Another thing to consider is the effects of hard cosmic radiation on the flag’s fabric.
On Earth, we are all shielded from the effects of space radiation by the Earth’s atmosphere and natural magnetic fields.
The Moon, unfortunately, does not have the same level of protection, meaning they have likely been destroyed, bleached or damaged.
NASA’s James Fincannon speculated in 2012: “Intuitively, experts mostly think it highly unlikely the Apollo flags could have endured the 42 years of exposure to vacuum, about 500 temperature swings from 242F during the day to -280F during the night, micrometeorites, radiation and ultraviolet light, some thinking the flags have all but disintegrated under such an assault of the environment.”