By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
For this month’s celebration of Flag Friday, what makes this particular flag stand out is not how old it is, but its location. Because a long time ago, in a dimension beyond earth-bound man, a flag waves boldly where only one other has gone before it – the moon.
For most of you reading this blog, few may remember 46 years ago on Nov. 14, 1969, when Apollo 12 mission launched during a rainy Friday morning from Cape Kennedy, Fla. Our current Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson was around 10 years old at the time.
This lunar mission didn’t have the gravitas behind it as Apollo 11, when former Marine pilot Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon, made famous by his “small step for man, giant leap for mankind” statement.
Nor did it have the type of drama as the throw-superstition-to-the-wind Apollo 13 mission, when an oxygen tank exploded two days into its mission on April 13, 1970, causing the loss of a second oxygen tank. After lead astronaut and former Navy Capt. James A. Lovell radioed “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” an entire nation held their collective breaths wondering whether the myriad fixes and repairs would get the crew safely back home before their oxygen ran out.
Apollo 12 was actually a textbook mission launch, landing and recovery with its all-Navy crew of astronauts: commander Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., lunar module pilot Alan L. Bean, and Richard F. Gordon Jr., the command module pilot.
To commemorate the event, a U.S. Navy ensign was flown during the mission and signed by all three Navy captains. The inscription reads, “To all Navy and Marine Men and Women from all-Navy Astronaut Crew.” That flag is now part of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s archival collection.
Also aboard the lunar module were flags from 136 nations, the United Nations, all 50 U.S. states and four U.S. possessions.
Apollo 12’s American flag was planted on the surface of the moon not far from the location of the first historic moon walk on July 20, 1969. Apollo 11 commander Buzz Aldrin reported that flag fell over after their rocket boosters went off for their return home.
Scientists have opined for years the Apollo 11 flag could not have survived the harsh conditions of the moon for the past 46 years, with temperatures of 212 degrees Fahrenheit coupled with unfiltered ultraviolet radiation during the day and -238 degrees at night. Pretty stern stuff to weather for a $5.50 piece of 3-foot by 5-foot red, white and blue fabric made of beechwood fibers and reconstituted cellulose (yep, that’s what the flag cost in 1969 from the flag-making New Jersey-based company Annin).
So wouldn’t that be the likely fate of the Apollo 12 flag as well? Perhaps not. The Apollo 12 flag wasn’t the first on the moon, but it may still be standing, thanks to a malfunction of the latch on the pivot. Rather than holding the flag open, it hung straight down instead, like a flag on a windless day.
Because of that position, pictures taken of those moon sites in 2011 show a shadow being cast where the flag pole was planted…large enough to make a least one scientist believe the Apollo 12 flag may still “wave” on the moon.
High resolution photos from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) were examined by Jim Fincannon, a NASA engineer and shadowing and illumination expert from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He determined the wax and wane of shadows being cast as the moon rotates through sunrise and sunset support the surprising notion some of the flags planted during the Apollo missions may still be there.
As to whether those flags still have stars and stripes, well, that will take another trip to the final frontier.