One of the more enduring questions about the Apollo Moon missions is seemingly simple: after 40+ years, are the flags the astronauts planted on the lunar surface still there?
It’s an interesting question. Buzz Aldrin claims he saw the flag blow over when the ascent module carrying him and Neil Armstrong lifted off from the Moon – which was never confirmed (until now; hang on for that), but the fates of the flags from the other five missions have never been ascertained. In 2009 there was tantalizing evidence the flags from Apollo 17 was still standing, but the images were just barely too fuzzy to know for sure.
But now, apparently, we do know: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has now confirmed that the flags at all the landing sites are still there, except for Apollo 11. It looked like Buzz was right!
Here’s an image showing the Apollo 16 flag:
The flag itself is visible in the picture – LRO’s angle on it shows the shadowed side, which is slightly darker than the lunar surface – and the shadow it casts on the surface is obvious.
I have to admit, I’m surprised*. The flags were made of simple nylon, which can disintegrate when exposed to ultraviolet light. I figured that after all this time they’d be nothing more than red, white, and blue powder at the base of their poles. I guess I was wrong. And I’m happy to be! [UPDATE: In the comments below, BABloggee Maxx points out that polymers need oxygen to be degraded by UV light, so this may be why the flags haven't disintegrated.]
That picture from Apollo 16 is impressive, and I have to admit, that’s my favorite flag of the missions. It’s where Charlie Duke took a picture of John Young doing a "big Navy salute" – Young jumped up, and Duke snapped the photo while Young was still off the surface (not while he was in the air, of course, since that’s a commodity the Moon lacks):
A minor firestorm has been lit by the NBC TV network: for their coverage of the the U.S. Open golf competition over the weekend, NBC aired a little patriotic intro of kids reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance" to the American flag intercut with shots of soldiers raising the flag. No big deal for a sports show, except for one small thing: they edited out the kids saying the words "under God" in the Pledge:
Hmmmm. I have several comments.
1) I don’t think this was intentional on the part of NBC. Obviously, they meant to edit the Pledge, but I don’t think they took out the words "under God" as some sort of anti-American God-hating plot to secularize the country and turn us into slavish devil-worshippers. Not that this would stop some folks from believing just that.
That seems far-fetched to start with, but mind you they also edited out the word "indivisible". If they had some sort of anti-religious agenda, why take that out? Just taking out "under God" would be a much stronger statement.
2) The original pledge didn’t have the words "under God" in it. They were added in 1954 as part of the McCarthy red scare. I’ve always found it the height of irony that they were added between the words "one nation" and "indivisible", as adding religion to a secular pledge is very divisive, and in fact that was the intent of adding it (McCarthyism is a great example of "Us versus Them" thinking).
[UPDATE: After posting this, I saw that Fark has a thread on this with the title, "NBC apologizes for airing Pledge of Allegiance as originally written".]
3) NBC issued an apology for this which will do nothing to calm people down:
We began our coverage of this final round just about three hours ago and when we did it was our intent to begin the coverage of this U.S. Open Championship with a feature that captured the patriotism of our national championship being held in our nation’s capital for the third time. Regrettably, a portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that was in that feature was edited out. It was not done to upset anyone and we’d like to apologize to those of you who were offended by it.
If they had said why they edited it — bad audio, or cut for time, or saying more than just "under God" was taken out, or whatever the heck the actual reason is — it would’ve gone a lot farther. Leaving it like that just will enflame people more.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Pledge, to be honest. I was made to recite it in school when I was a kid, memorizing it by rote, but never, not once, was I taught what it was supposed to mean. When done that way, it’s a litany. I do honestly think that a representative democracy is the best form of government we have, but I also think there are ways of improving it. Having kids memorize a pledge like this doesn’t encourage them to think about their government and country, it only encourages them to obey it.
And that, to me, is the opposite of what our country actually stands for.
This is very, very cool: The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently orbiting the Moon just 50 km off the surface, has taken more shots of the Apollo 17 landing site… and has seen the actual U.S. flag!
Behold (and salute):
[Click to boldly embiggen.]
Well, lookit that! It’s fuzzy and small and hard to be sure it’s the flag in the picture, but there it is. It does match maps made of the Apollo 17 landing site, so it’s definitely the flagpole we’re seeing there.
Compare this picture to that taken by the 16mm movie camera on the Ascent Module right after Apollo 17 lifted off the Moon; you can see many of the same features. I spent a minute looking for the rover in the LRO picture, then remembered that the astronauts moved it well off to one side, about 100 meters, before they left the Moon so that the video camera on board could record their ascent (it was remotely controlled from Earth by an operator named Ed Fendell,
who had tried to film the launch of Apollo 15′s and 16′s Ascent Module but missed; with Apollos 15 and 16 technical issues prevented the ascent from being filmed, but with 17 he made it, and that’s the movie you always see in documentaries). However, you can see it in this larger overview from LRO:
[Again, click to make a giant leap.]
Incredible. The LRO page on this has more details, including comparisons of the images from LRO to ones taken in situ from Apollo 17. Remember too that these LRO images have a resolution of 50 cm (18 inches) per pixel!
Wow. Wowee wow wow.
Back to the flag, there’s a curious thing about it. The flag itself was nylon, and that tends to get brittle when exposed to ultraviolet light — which is relentless and plentiful on the airless Moon (the thermal pounding it’s taken between day and night can’t help either). I’ve often wondered what we’ll find when we go back to the Apollo landing sites; I half-expect to see red, white, and blue powder off to one side of the flagpole, and no actual flag left on the pole. This picture, as frakkin’ amazing as it is, is still just barely too low resolution to be able to say for sure, I think. The shadow is only a pixel or so in size and so it’s hard to say what’s what.
Still, Holy Haleakala. Apollo 17′s flag. I wonder what Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt thought when they saw this picture. And I wonder when we’ll go back.
Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Guillermo Abramson. [Edited to add: Apparently I am late to this game. While catching up on other blogs just now, I saw that both Emily Lakdawalla and Nancy Atkinson already wrote about this!]