Flag Knocked Down on Moon?

Is the Apollo 11 American flag still standing?

For 40 years, people have talked about the likelihood that the flag — which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted, saluted and photographed on July 20, 1969 — remains standing on the moon. Now the answer may be available: apparently not.

[Buzz Aldrin stands by flag in photo by Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969.]

When the Lunar Module blasted from the surface about 20 hours after the flag was posted, the engines’ exhaust kicked up soil and the flag was knocked around. The last time it was visible was during that ascent. An automated movie camera recorded the action from a window in the LM. The flag whips violently from side to side for a few seconds, then the edge of the window blocks the landing site from view.

The discussion never reached the level of controversy, but some claim the flag was knocked down. In a book of short stories I read recently, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, from time to time an ancient American woman shouts with glee that there is a flag on the moon (this is set in the period right after the first landing). The narrator, an emigre from India via England, doesn’t have the heart to tell her that the astronauts said they saw the flag fall.

I don’t recall that the astronauts said that. But the question has persisted about whether the liftoff knocked over the flag.

Pictures taken by Armstrong and Aldrin help locate the flag as between the lander and a small crater, possibly two together that form a keyhole shape.

[Apollo 11’s flag on the moon seems to stand near a keyhole-shaped feature, made up of a pair of craters, in background.]

On June 18, NASA launched twin moon probes – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite — from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. They are to search for ice on the moon as well as potential future landing sites. For the past couple of months the LRO has been circling the moon from low orbit and making detailed photographs.

The space agency released LRO images of several Apollo landing sites, including Apollo 11, on July 17. The views, taken between July 11 and July 15, are in high resolution. They show Apollo descent stages on the surface as well as caches of science instruments and even trails left by the astronauts walking on the moon. Surveyor 3, an earlier robot lander visited by the Apollo 12 astronauts, can be seen just inside a crater. Pictures with two or three times better resolution are expected once the LRO reaches its final mapping orbit, according to NASA.

[NASA view of Apollo 11 landing site, taken in mid-July. The descent module is in the center of this cropped, enlarged view.]

The Eagle descent stage and its long shadow, a couple of keyhole craters and other craters, show up clearly in the image of the Apollo 11 site. What doesn’t appear is any sign of the flag standing between the lander and what I presume is the keyhole, or anywhere else. LRO’s camera made the exposure while raking sunlight cast long shadows across this region of the moon, a configuration that should have stretched out the flag’s shadow and made it more noticeable.

Possibly, more detailed photographs by LCROSS will show the flag standing proudly beside the descent stage. I hope they will. But I doubt it.

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