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Apollo lunar flags still standing

By

July 31, 2012

Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base (Photo: NASA)

Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base (Photo: NASA)

Image Gallery (5 images)

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the US flag on the Moon. The image of Aldrin standing with the flag is one of the indelible images of that great day. But over the years, one question has vexed space buffs – what happened to the flag? In his book Return to Earth, Aldrin says that when the Lunar Module’s Ascent stage lifted off from Tranquility Base, he saw the flag topple over. Since no one could confirm what happened, it remained a mystery ... at least, until now. On July 27, NASA announced that its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) had solved the puzzle of the fate of the Apollo lunar flags.

Whether or not the Apollo 11 flag fell over is a well-known episode in space history. In one of his novels, science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke had a bit about future conservationists debating whether to put the flag back up or leave it lying ... but it isn’t the only flag left by the astronauts with a question mark over it. The fate of all the Apollo flags was in doubt until now. The cross piece on one flag pole that holds the flag upright in the lunar vacuum broke when the Apollo 12 astronauts put it up, so they were having trouble from the start. Others were seen in videos of lunar lift-offs flapping furiously in the rocket backwash. Whether or not they subsequently toppled was unknown.

Even whether they still existed was a question. All six of the flags left by Apollo were made of nylon and the lunar surface isn’t very friendly to nylon. With the intense heat and hard UV radiation, at the very least the flags would have soon bleached white. After four decades, the polymers in the fabric could have broken down completely and disintegrated into ashy threads.

Apollo 16 commander John Young saluting the flag while jumping (Photo: NASA)

Apollo 16 commander John Young saluting the flag while jumping (Photo: NASA)

Then along came LRO. Launched on June 18, 2009, the spacecraft was one of the first sent to mark NASA’s return to the Moon. Its mission was to carry out low altitude reconnaissance. The high resolution images sent back to Earth would be used for looking for landing sites for future missions and to carry out a detailed survey of the polar regions and their potential ice deposits, vital to future lunar colonies. One side benefit was that it allowed scientists and the public their first look at old lunar landing sites, especially those from Apollo.

The images sent back of the sites were like nothing seen previously. The Lunar Module’s Descent stage, the experiments, Lunar Rover tracks and even footprints were visible. Then the LROC team realized that they had the means to solve the flag mystery. By comparing images of the sites taken at the same angle at different times of day, they could compare them, and the shifting shadows would reveal the height and shape of objects on the ground (see the video below). When they applied this to the Apollo sites, there were what looked like the flags ... at five of them. The sixth, Apollo 11, had no flag. It looks as though Aldrin was right.

One question that remains is if the flags themselves still exist or just the poles with what looks like flags. The poles and cross pieces are certainly standing there and images show something like a flag shape, but the resolution isn't high enough to show them clearly. One possibility is that the “flag” may be a combination of pole and cross piece, plus a patch of footprints left by the astronauts when setting it up.

That, however, is a question for another day.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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9 Comments

Damn, this is just making it harder for those conspiracy theorists... :-)

Marc 1
31st July, 2012 @ 06:21 pm PDT

those pictures suck, you would think with 2009 technology, you could get some fantastic close up photos. With no atmosphere to distort, . I get better images from google earth

tampa florida
1st August, 2012 @ 07:32 am PDT

If we can't even make it out, how does Nasa even know what they're looking at? A dark spot instantly becomes the flags shadow. Every time Nasa shows photos of the landing sites, its worse than a bigfoot sighting.

Mark Gilbreath
1st August, 2012 @ 07:54 am PDT

In other words, the "mystery" is still just that. Nothing has been solved.

TheRogue1000
1st August, 2012 @ 10:15 am PDT

The cameras weren't designed or intended for imaging landing sites. That was an unintended bonus. To criticize them for not being able to do that well is just silly.

Christopher Erickson
1st August, 2012 @ 10:19 am PDT

re; Christopher Erickson

They are being criticized for making claims that they can't prove.

"Without doubt four of the six flags are still there! we think." -- NASA Spokesman.

Slowburn
1st August, 2012 @ 10:00 pm PDT

If you look at picture # 4:

you can see the lrv and below the track it left.

I wonder why in such a sharp corner only two tracks were made?!

In a car (at least on earth) there are always four tracks visible in sharp corners!

And the sharpness and contrast of the lunar surface is very different to the apollo equipment.

I must say, this doesn't look like an authentic photography to me.

Suvilo
8th August, 2012 @ 01:45 am PDT

Our military have spy satellites that can be in low Earth orbit in space AND READ the damn newspaper that someone is holding while sitting in a park .So what happened here ???

Jim Andrews
26th September, 2012 @ 09:02 pm PDT

This is long after but, the reason the tracks in a sharp corner only show two tracks is, I suspect, because the lunar rover was a four wheel steer vehicle which would keep those tires in the same track.

Bryan Haslett
17th December, 2013 @ 01:03 pm PST
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