How Hard Was It to Plant the Flag on the Moon?

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag. (Image: NASA History Office and NASA JSC Media Services)
Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag. (Image: NASA History Office and NASA JSC Media Services)

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 Moon walk, a vexillologist looks at the challenge of planting the flag on the Moon. When Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the United States flag on the Moon 50 years ago this month — July 20, 1969, to be exact — it was a team effort.

Neil A. Armstrong (left) and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. (right) with the flag on the Moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Image: NASA PHOTO S69-40308)

Neil A. Armstrong (left) and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. (right) with the flag on the Moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Image: NASA PHOTO S69-40308)

It also represented a major feat of engineering. Annie Platoff, a librarian at the UC Santa Barbara Library and a leading expert on the Apollo program’s placement of flags on the lunar surface, said:

The lunar flagpole

With virtually no atmosphere on the Moon — and, therefore, no wind — flags that fly freely on Earth would hang like limp cloth in the lunar environment. So engineers had to rethink flagpole design entirely, according to Platoff. On an earthbound flagpole, the flag is attached at the hoist — the vertical section closest to the pole — at both the top and bottom of the flag.

Elements of the lunar flag assembly for Apollo 11 included the flag pole, an insulating blanket, and a thermal protective shroud. (Image: NASA PHOTO S69-38748)

Elements of the lunar flag assembly for Apollo 11 included the flag pole, an insulating blanket, and a thermal protective shroud. (Image: NASA PHOTO S69-38748)

The pole might slide through a sleeve on the hoist side of the flag, or be attached by grommets or some other type of fastener. A lunar flag, however, is anchored to the pole only at the bottom. It is held in place mainly by a horizontal crossbar at the top. Platoff explained:

NASA engineer Jack Kinzler’s original sketch of the Lunar Flag Assembly. (Image: JACK KINZLER)

NASA engineer Jack Kinzler’s original sketch of the Lunar Flag Assembly. (Image: JACK KINZLER)

To deploy the flag, one astronaut used a sampling hammer to pound the lower vertical section into the ground. The other astronaut extended the telescoping crossbar and raised it to a 90-degree angle with the vertical section to click it into place. Then the two astronauts slid the upper part of the pole into the lower one. Platoff noted:

Traveling into space

Astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon. (Image:: NASA)

Astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon. (Image: NASA)

Simply getting the flag to the Moon also proved a challenge for NASA engineers. Platoff said:

To protect Old Glory, engineers built a metal shroud that went around the apparatus on the ladder. They also added some insulating blanket material. On later missions, the flag was moved to a storage compartment outside the lunar module. Platoff said:

The vexillologist

Though her interest in flags developed at an early age, it wasn’t until Platoff started college that she realized entire books had been written on the subject, or that organizations exist for people who share her passion. Platoff said:

An opportunity of a lifetime came along when Whitney Smith, the father of modern vexillology, and director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts, invited Platoff to do some research with him in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas. It happened to be close to where a meeting of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) was set to take place. Platoff said:

When Smith invited Platoff to attend the NAVA meeting, her hobby transitioned into a serious scholarly pursuit. Later, her husband took a job at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and a television interview with one of the engineers who designed the lunar flagpole for the Apollo 11 mission piqued her interest in flags on the Moon as a research project. She said:

Honors and Accolades

Still an active NAVA member, Platoff serves as director of the organization’s digital library and is the first woman to receive its Captain William Driver Award, an honor bestowed upon her twice. (Note: It was Driver, a sea captain from Salem, Massachussetts, who in 1824 proclaimed the flag Old Glory.)

Platoff also is the first female fellow of the Fédération Internationale des Associations Vexillologiques (FIAV), the first woman recognized with FIAV’s Vexillon Award for the most important contribution to vexillology during a 2-year period, and the first female recipient of FIAV’s Whitney Smith Award.

Recognized as one of the first research fellows of the Flag Research Center, she also serves on the Board of Trustees for the Flag Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to the knowledge, preservation, and study of flags.

Serving as the UC Santa Barbara Library’s subject liaison for Slavic studies, Platoff is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Leicester in England. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the use of flags and other symbols in the civil religion of the former Soviet Union.

Provided by: Andrea Estrada,  [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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