Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. But where did it come from? There are a few theories, but ultimately no one seems to know for certain.
Dolores Black, a former seamstress for a flag company in Milwaukee, thinks she may have sewn it. She stated during an interview that she had sewn her name inside the webbing that would have been used to attach the flag to a pole. Unfortunately, that webbing and the manufacturer’s labels had to be removed in order to affix the flag to its aluminum pole, so even were someone to launch a multi-billion dollar operation to inspect it, there is no way to verify her assertion.
According to NASA itself, the flag was purchased off-the-shelf, with no special modifications until they attached it to the custom-made, gold-anodized aluminum pole used to support it. This flagpole featured a telescopic, hinged pole designed to hold the flag unfurled on the airless moon. The telescopic portion was apparently difficult to engage while the astronauts were wearing their spacesuits, so the flag was displayed slightly curled, giving the illusion that it was waving briskly in an absent wind.
Of course, the flag is no longer standing; Buzz Aldrin noticed it was knocked over by the rocket exhaust lifting the Eagle’s ascent module from the moon. Given that the lack of atmosphere means the sun’s ultraviolet rays are unimpeded, the flag is now undoubtedly bleached completely white. The store-shelf nylon it was made from would have disintegrated over the intervening years.
NASA’s determination to not see the space program used as an advertising gimmick means that no one now knows for certain whether the flag was purchased from a Sears store or from a government catalogue. Those records may simply not exist anymore. This makes it impossible to determine exactly where the original fabric came from, although that has not stopped at least two North Carolina towns from claiming they produced it. Burlington Mills in Rhodhiss was a source for the fabric used in the spacesuits, so there may be some legitimacy to their claim.
However, this only helps confuse the issue. Was the flag commissioned from a specialty fabric weaver in North Carolina, commissioned from a specialty flag retailer in Wisconsin, or purchased from a Sears store? Various parties have tried to determine the true origin, only to come upon the same tangle of conflicting stories we see above. Without some memo or directive coming to light these many years later, there seems to be no definitive answer.
The very act of placing a flag on the moon in the first place was not without controversy. Various treaties and international agreements stipulated that outer space was not to be subject to sovereignty or colonization, and planting an American flag could be interpreted as violating those agreements. In so doing, NASA specified that the flag was being raised as a symbol of pride and triumph, not to serve as a declaration of American ownership of the moon. Perhaps tellingly, the action was not protested by any governmental body in this or any of the following Apollo missions.
Symbolic and dramatic, the planting of the flag was the most-remembered portion of the extra-vehicular activities executed by the astronauts. But that flag was not the only one to make the trip. Smaller flags—one for each state and one for each member of the United Nations—were carried to the moon within the lunar module and brought back for presentation to governors and heads of state.
Technical considerations for such a small but powerful portion of the mission were many and varied. Once the decision to include a flag had been made late in the planning process, it had to be determined how best to transport it. There was so little room in the Lunar Landing Module that the flag wound up being fastened to the exit ladder. This necessitated designing and building a heatproof container for it, which was installed on the day of launch.
The astronauts had previously, along with all their other training, undergone practice runs of detaching the container, removing the flag, planting the flagpole, and erecting the flag itself. As mentioned, there was some trouble extending the horizontal portion of the pole, but the effect was so attractive that later missions deliberately left the extension partially retracted to duplicate it.
The whole assembly weighed less than ten pounds, and the entire process took less than ten minutes, but the payoff was tremendous. Regardless of from where the flag came, the whole world cheered at its placement. AmericanFlags.com is looking forward to sourcing flags for Mars and beyond, and this time we’ll know who made them.