Why is there a flag on the moon? And before you rush to say “because an astronaut
put it there,” don’t you think it’s a little strange? I mean, if flags are the symbols of nations
then why bother putting one up on the moon, where there are no nations…or people? But outside of providing the inspiration for
the MTV Moonman and iconic pictures of astronauts bouncing across the moon’s surface while
they plant the flag into lunar soil, why did a flag (let alone 6 US flags) need to go into
space at all? And that’s not counting flags sent to the
moon by the Soviet Union, Japan, China, India and the European Space Agency. Today I’m going to dive into the history
of why nations plant flags, why this performative gesture has been repeated so many times, and
how the stars and stripes became a historic part of space travel. Even though planting a flag on the moon may
be one of the showiest and most memorable versions of a ceremonial flag raising, the
history of jamming decorated fabric on poles into the ground dates back a few thousand
years. But many of the modern national flags that
we know and use today date back to around the 17th century. Although some countries had national flags
before the 17th century, they were all eventually replaced by newer versions. National flags are meant to symbolize nations,
their subjects and their governments. And in the race for longevity, Denmark is
in the lead with the oldest continuously used national flag dating back to 1625, according
to the Guiness Book of World Records. Other nations with particularly old (although
not continuously used) national flags include Japan, Spain, the UK, and Latvia. But national flags aren’t the only flag
game in town…or the world? Flags with the seals and insignia of individual
rulers, armies, private enterprises and generational dynasties/houses stretch back thousands of
years before the 17th century, and their meanings have varied over time. Because while flags often represent authority,
they’ve had a couple of adjacent uses. For example, military flags can carry certain
meanings to communicate the actions of troops, like waving a white flag to indicate defeat. And raising or lowering a flag can serve as
a sign of ownership over a place or can be an indication of mourning and loss. You might be familiar with the metaphor of
“waving a white flag” instead of saying “I give up”; or describing something as
flying at “half mast” or “half staff” instead of saying it’s deflated or subdued. But there’s one other crucial function of
flags that ties together their military, national, and governmental histories. And this will bring us to why there’s an
American flag up on the moon. Because they definitely weren’t admitting
defeat by putting one up there. Western European colonial expansion began
with Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492, which was funded by the Spanish monarchs Isabella
I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. What followed was a period of rapid colonial
expansion (mostly by ship) that stretched through the 16th century until the late 19th
century. In the intervening years, ships largely from
Western Europe made territorial claims on many parts of the world. But the struggle for ownership didn’t move
forward smoothly, as monarchs faced hearty resistance on all sides. People who were indigineous to the regions
that were subject to colonial rule were understandably defiant. These regions include the Americas & Caribbean,
Australia & the Pacific, and the Asian and African continents. They took issue with the incoming colonizers
who looked to subjugate or exterminate their people while reaping unparalleled financial
rewards. Colonial powers also faced extreme competition
from the rulers of other nations, who looked to set up their own regimes even in places
that had already been colonized. In the midst of brutal and violent conflict,
along with the mass migration of colonial settlers from Western Europe to the rest of
the world (primarily by sailing ships), the symbolism of the flag took on heightened meaning. Flags were meant to imbue colonial conquerors
with the authority of the monarchs sponsoring their voyages. And monarchs who professed belief in “Divine
Right”, (or absolute power handed down to them from God) said that these were symbols
of their houses were not to be questioned. But symbols and signs don’t carry universal
meanings. They’re reliant on the shared understanding
of the folks who create them as well as those who are reading them. And often the people who already inhabited
the regions being colonized weren’t given an option for refusal. Take for example the Spanish “Requerimiento”
of 1513, a document that conquistadors would read aloud to native people when they arrived
to colonize South America. They would raise the flag (either literally
or metaphorically) and read the document which claimed they had unlimited God given authority
under the Spanish Crown to rule all of the lands and people they encountered. And that if anyone resisted, they were also
authorized under Papal Law to take violent action against indigenous people. But the document was either read in Spanish
or Latin, often with no translators. Sometimes no Native people were present to
even hear the pronouncement. As a result it functioned as a completely
empty symbolic gesture to justify later territorial claims. But before I start sounding like a real vexillologist
(or someone who specializes in the study of flags) let’s pivot back to the moon. Because by the time of the Space Race really
took off in the mid 20th century, imperial powers had run out of corners of the world
to plant metaphorical flags in. So the precedents of colonial practices were
redirected from the ships that sailed the ocean blue and to the ones that sailed to
space. 50 years ago when the US was preparing for
the first manned lunar landing, nations around the world were riveted by “the space race”
taking place largely between the Soviet Union and the US. And although we often like to believe that
science operates completely separately from the peccadilloes of human emotion, it doesn’t. Because science is performed by humans, meaning
it’s also susceptible to our irrational and emotional whims. As Apollo 11 launched American astronauts
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin toward the first successful manned lunar landing in 1969,
the flight also carried aboard a small surprise stash. It was a kit known as the Lunar Flag Assembly
that carried a US flag and the necessary parts to plant it into lunar soil. And according to Tom Moser, one of the NASA
engineers responsible for sending that flag kit to space, “It was not a military department
of defense secret. It was just politically we didn’t want the
word out before the event happened.” But why? Well that brings us back around to the human
aspects of scientific discovery. The excitement of space exploration, coupled
with the heated competition between nations to be the first to “lay claim” outside
of Earth was evident from the earliest days of the Space Race. And the claims were for celestial bodies,
rather than discrete bodies of land down here on boring old regular Earth. The fight to lay claim to space before other
competing powers became so acute that on January 27th 1967 certain members of the United Nations
signed this mouthful of a treaty called: “The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities
of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial
Bodies” (or also known as The Outer Space Treaty for short). According to the US Department of State’s
website, the treaty had a very colonial purpose in mind. It notes: The Outer Space Treaty, as it is known, was
the second of the so-called “nonarmament” treaties; its concepts and some of its provisions
were modeled on its predecessor, the Antarctic Treaty. Like that Treaty it sought to prevent “a new
form of colonial competition” and the possible damage that self-seeking exploitation might
cause. The treaty itself outlines a few key principles
for future space exploration: First: Space is the domain of all mankind,
regardless of nation Second: No nation can lay territorial claim
to space And Third: Space exploration should be taken
up for the good of all mankind and not to benefit the interests of individual nations So the first American flag planted on the
moon, which was framed by the US as a humanitarian gesture of good will, was also a way to squeak
around the rules. Instead of “a new form of colonial competition,”
it maintained old symbols of domination. And getting that flag up there wasn’t exactly
as light and bouncy as an astronaut jumping across the moon’s surface. It was also something of a logistical and
technical puzzle to solve. Work began about 3 months before the scheduled
launch of Apollo 11 and NASA’s engineers worked to make sure the flag was lightweight
and small enough to get to space. So they relied on a telescoping pole that
could be collapsed, and the whole thing only weighed about 9 pounds 7 ozs. And once Aldrin and Armstrong arrived on the
moon, they struggled at first to plant the pole into lunar soil. But after it was finally up, it created an
image that’s lasted forever in our minds. But the last of the technical challenges of
the first lunar flag is that it couldn’t exactly fulfill the line from the US National
Anthem about a waving star spangled banner. And that’s because without any wind on the
moon, there’s nothing to create that effect of blowing in the wind. Instead, some speculate that the almost rippled
effect of the flag was caused by a horizontal telescoping arm not being extended all the
way by those early astronauts. And according to NASA’s website, “later
crews intentionally left the rod partially retracted” to recreate the waving effect
of this first flag. Today 6 US flags have been planted on the
moon, although the state that they’re in remains a bit contested. Buzz Aldrin claims that he saw the first flag
get knocked over, possibly by ignition gases from the lunar lift off. Others think that the natural progression
of time and exposure to extreme conditions have probably left the flags discolored, bleached,
severely damaged, or destroyed. So they could still be up there, but unrecognizable
as American flags. Which kind of makes me wonder about the fragility
of national symbols. Although they’re meant to demonstrate longevity,
more often than not the symbols of power are just as fallible as the humans who create
them. Today the image of the first flag on the moon
continues to carry the huge symbolic weight of national pride and conquest, even though
they don’t exist in the same form they had when humans first stuck them up there. And just like those nylon man made flags that
made it to space, symbols only exist to serve the purpose of our collective imagination
rather than as definitive evidence of the things we’re hoping to achieve. But don’t count out the value of national
myths just yet. In 2011 Mr. Moser sold scraps of fabric that
he had saved from the original lunar flag through an auction house for $45,000. Although the pieces were trimmed from the
flag before it even went into orbit, the sustained value of these otherwise unremarkable scraps
of nylon serve as evidence that this patriotic and colonial symbol still carries abstract
and concrete value in the public’s minds.