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Something still aloft
March 2, 2014 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Do the Apollo flags remain where they were planted or have they fallen or have they disintegrated after four decades of intense UV and heat? James Fincannon investigates flags left behind from Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 missions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (33 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Neat!
posted by ocherdraco at 11:49 AM on March 2


How intense can the UV and heat actually be in the dusty back room of a film studio?
posted by codswallop at 11:59 AM on March 2 [40 favorites]


Lovely, cheers
posted by dng at 12:07 PM on March 2


codswallop: Very
posted by wierdo at 12:12 PM on March 2


Pretty cool, and worth a read, though I think it would be an easier read if they were more clear at the top of each of the pages about whether they think the flag was up or fell down for each. They kind of do it, but a lot of their results are buried in their great explanation of how they got their results.

A table at the top would make the article clearer.

From my reading:

Apollo 11: seen to fall down on lift off
Apollo 12: still aloft
Apollo 13: never landed on moon
Apollo 14: unknown
Apollo 15: unknown
Apollo 16: still aloft
Apollo 17: still aloft
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:24 PM on March 2 [8 favorites]


Wow, the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal -- is that wonderful thing or what ? Oh, to remember the days when we thought Kubrick's vision of 2001 was certainly plausible if not the certain future.
To paraphrase Edward G. Robinson, Where's your lunar base and Pan Am flights to a rotating space station now, Moses ?
posted by y2karl at 12:27 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


Future generations will laugh heartily about how we put flags on the Moon.
posted by Segundus at 1:01 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


It is believed that the colors on the flags have turned white due to sunlight and space radiation.

So after a mighty struggle, mankind reached the surface of the moon, planted six flags of surrender, and never returned.
posted by straight at 1:06 PM on March 2 [48 favorites]




I like Cracked.com's take. (#5)
posted by Melismata at 1:49 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


A question I didn't know I wanted to know the answer to. Thanks!
posted by aught at 2:00 PM on March 2


I wonder how you would make a cloth flag that wouldn't lose color in the UV rays. I guess you would have to weave in metal threads for the color, like weaving in copper wire for the red or something.
posted by gkhan at 2:31 PM on March 2


Throw together a Congressional investigative committee on JFK's multi-billion dollar American flag destruction program and we'll have the bipartisan funding for a new moon shot by the end of the week.
posted by Skwirl at 2:36 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]


I wonder if they'll still be standing in 20-40 years when something might actually visit one of the sites.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:56 PM on March 2


Dennis Lacarrubba, whose New Jersey-based company, Annin, made the flag and sold it to NASA for $5.50 in 1969, considers what might happen to an ordinary nylon flag left outside for 39 years on Earth...

Seriously? A five dollar flag?

I'm reminded of the "Eternal Bible" that consisted of gold foil letters printed on asbestos pages. Surely NASA could have made something flaglike out of exotic materials that would have been temperature/corrosion/UV resistant.

One might almost think they didn't bother making a flag that would last forever because they thought we were going back.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:29 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


I wonder how you would make a cloth flag that wouldn't lose color in the UV rays.

You use iron oxide for the red, cobalt for the blue, and titanium oxide for the white. For the actual cloth, ironically, cotton (cellulose mat) is probably more durable than anything synthetic in that environment.
posted by localroger at 3:29 PM on March 2


Seriously? A five dollar flag?

Yep. Initial plans called for not using a video camera either. Higher ups actively fought against it for a while. Hell, they didn't have make a plan to take photos of Armstrong.

It was a great achievement, but we couldn't think of everything.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:42 PM on March 2


I'm pretty sure that NASA was more worried about getting the Astronauts back from the moon in one piece than designing a vacuum/solar-radiation/meteorite-proof flag.
posted by octothorpe at 3:59 PM on March 2




They could have anodized a thin aluminum sheet. Would have weighed less than a cloth flag and would have been colourfast until pure erosion from solar wind and micrometoers wore the top layer off. Colours are limited to those of selected metal salts.

Nowadays though you can use interference coloured anodization which makes available the full spectrum and again would last until the top surface wore away from erosive forces.

straight: "So after a mighty struggle, mankind reached the surface of the moon, planted six flags of surrender, and never returned."

Don't worry, China's got our back.
posted by Mitheral at 4:13 PM on March 2


Seriously? A five dollar flag?

$35.06 in 2014 dollars.
posted by thegears at 4:24 PM on March 2 [6 favorites]


They could have anodized a thin aluminum sheet.

I think I always thought they did, and I wasn't alone- Robert Hunter apparently figured the same, and I'm glad you said this because I can take it as an excuse to post this lovely song-

There's a metal flag beside me someone planted long ago
Old Glory standing stiffly, crimson white and indigo

posted by hap_hazard at 4:25 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


I wonder if they'll still be standing in 20-40 years when something might actually visit one of the sites.

I like your optimism, sir!
posted by fairmettle at 5:15 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, as Brandon's link points out, we had signed a treaty disallowing sovereign claims on outer space so it wasn't clear if putting a flag on the Moon would meet Miss Manners' muster.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:57 PM on March 2


Seriously? A five dollar flag?

$35.06 in 2014 dollars.



Still five bucks but made in China.
posted by Pudhoho at 8:58 PM on March 2


On a related note, we did leave metal plaques on each of the lunar landers. Their design varies by mission, but the plaques contain the mission number, the names and signatures of the astronauts, and in some cases drawings of the earth (Apollo 17 includes the moon) and the call sign of the lunar module.

I would expect that all of these are still intact and readable, but it would be interesting to find out how long it would be before their environmental exposure would be expected to erase them. Apollo 12's plaque is different from the rest. I suspect it will last much longer than the rest, since it doesn't rely on ink or paint, but whether that means 100 years or 100,000 years, I don't know.

This also led to the question of whether Jack Swigert's name was on Apollo 13's plaque, or if it contained Ken Mattingly's name. Since the lander was already stowed on the Saturn V rocket at the time Mattingly was removed from the crew, NASA created a new plaque to fit over the existing one, and placed it on board for Jim Lovell to attach once they landed on the moon. Since that didn't happen, Lovell was able to keep it as a momento (and apparently still has it in his possession).
posted by 1367 at 9:17 PM on March 2


Both inscription and carbon based black ink are pretty impervious to environmental degradation. The main risk to black ink is the mechanical bond between the ink particles and the substrate.

I would expect the Apollo 12 plaque to remain legible for tens of millions of years, barring a direct strike by a large meteorite.
posted by localroger at 5:30 AM on March 3


They could have anodized a thin aluminum sheet. Would have weighed less than a cloth flag and would have been colourfast until pure erosion from solar wind and micrometoers wore the top layer off. Colours are limited to those of selected metal salts.

If you look at the A7L suit, you can see that they clearly had Blue and Red available in the 1960s. The blue isn't dark enough here, but it's close enough.

But, yeah -- the Flag was *very* last minute. The fact that there's apparently still significant amounts of material left on the A16 and A17 flags is surprising to me, and the only way we'd see the shadow is from the flag itself, the pole is less than 2cm in diameter, there's no way that shadow is visible when your minimum resolution is roughly half a meter. Objects smaller than that can appear, by darkening part of a pixel, but something that small would be lost.

So, we're clearly seeing something more substantial that the flagpole, which means the flags are still there.
posted by eriko at 5:45 AM on March 3


Seen those Moon boots in that A7L suit link? Neil and Buzz THREW THEM OUT at the end of their EVA to get rid of excess weight. Threw. them. out. Probably under orders.

NASA got the big stuff right in terms of bringing the astronauts back in alive and in piece. But some of the smaller details, well...hee.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:50 AM on March 3


NASA got the big stuff right in terms of bringing the astronauts back in alive and in piece. But some of the smaller details, well...hee.

You know that the lander only had seconds' worth of fuel left when they landed, right? They weren't going to take any chances on the takeoff.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:33 AM on March 3


Yeah, I know the story about only seconds of fuel left, but I believe that the reading was later found to be incorrect and that Armstrong had more fuel than the gauge indicated, due to to the fuel sloshing around the tank from Neil moving the vehicle sideways a lot (to find a good landing spot). This was fixed on later mixes and the command Module was used for the Powered Descent, giving the LM more fuel. Neil himself wasn't too worried, because he felt the LM could survive a relatively large drop (50 feet or so) to the surface once the engines cut off.

Also, the Ascent module had a different fuel system than the Descent Module, so the amount of fuel in the latter wasn't a big deal.

I'm not completely confident about fuel slosh and indicator, can't remember where it was read/don't have link. but it's a story!

But overall, I understand the caution. It was the fist mission and nobody wanted to take more risks than necessary. It's only in retrospect that that we can "Oh yeah, they could have done X".

Apollo 11 was also a bit of a test flight for later missions. The astronauts were limited in how far they could travel from the LM, in order to test how much coolant and water was used in their backpacks (PLSS). Once the EVA was over, they measured how much was left, to gauge how long later missions could stay in the lunar environment.

Later on when they transferred back to the Command Module in lunar orbit, the astronauts intentionally left the Lunar Module interior (lights, atmosphere system) running at full power, but with coolant turned off. This was to see how long the LM could survive with no cooling (about 8 hours).This turned out to be useful info Apollo 13, when measuring battery power and life was critical.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:12 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


One might almost think they didn't bother making a flag that would last forever because they thought we were going back.

Yeah, I can't believe that anyone at NASA would have imagined that we'd successfully put men on the moon several times and not go back for 40-50 years (or more).
posted by straight at 1:58 PM on March 3


It depends. Astronaut William Anders, who flew on Apollo 8 and was scheduled to backup Apollo 11 before rotating back to prime crew of Apollo 14 as Command Module Pilot, saw the writing on the wall. He really wanted to walk on the Moon, but figured that the program wouldn't last for him to be on Apollo 14 and then rotate to Mission Commander for Apollo 19. So he left in the summer of '69.

Apollo was always limited, there were only enough Saturn V rockets for to last to Apollo 20, assuming not accidents. But then Apollo 13 happened and the higher ups got nervous. The system devised for Apollo was very dangerous and 13 showed that with its freak accident due to a design flaw from 1965 and a series of minor accidents that converged to reveal the flaw that cause the exploding oxygen tank.

When it came time to commit to doing Apollo 18 and 19 amidst harsh budget cuts, NASA administrators didn't fight too hard to keep those flights. But Christopher Kraft, the original Flight Director and later, one of those administrators wrote in his autobiography that if they had a clue that Apollo 17 would be the last flight for at least 60 years or so, then they would have fought like hell to fly 18 and 19 (20 was cancelled so Skylab could use a Saturn V for its launch).

As much as it sucks that Apollo did end, even when the hardware for 18 and 19 was paid for and mostly built, it's almost a miracle that six lunar landings were made. The program was less a natural progress of exploration than a freak of government and political nature that spawned an incredible leap forward, only to find little there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:50 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


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