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Apollo 11 Prototype Flag

As an Apollo artifact collector, I am so excited to have found the prototype build of the first flagpole assembly on the moon.


I brought it to Buzz Aldrin, and his eyes went wide. But from what I learned, there probably is no Apollo 11 flag on the moon today. Hold that thought; first some background… =)


About three months before Apollo 11, Robert Gilruth asked MSC's Technical Services Division to design a flagpole that could support the U.S. flag in an environment with no atmosphere. It had to be lightweight, compact, and easily assembled by astronauts wearing pressurized space suits. This build, nearly identical to the one placed on the moon by Buzz and Neil, comes from William R. Whipkey in the Technical Services Division of MSC.


The flag was such an afterthought, there was no place for it in the Lunar Module; they had to strap it to the leg of the lander!


The final version had a beveled edge for lunar insertion, but as Buzz told me, they beveled it the wrong way, on the interior, so the lunar regolith funneled into the central shaft, making it difficult to insert.


Buzz recalls: "It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a disaster.... As hard as we tried, the telescope wouldn't fully extend. Thus the flag, which should have been flat, had its own unique permanent wave. Then to our dismay the staff of the pole wouldn't go far enough into the lunar surface to support itself in an upright position. After much struggling we finally coaxed it to remain upright, but in a most precarious position. I dreaded the possibility of the American flag collapsing into the lunar dust in front of the television camera" (Cortright, Apollo Expeditions to the Moon).


His concerns were not unfounded. Earlier this month, Buzz told me that Neil Armstrong clearly saw the flag blow over on takeoff. He ends my video interview with:


“We can say with total certainty that of six flags on the moon, ours was the best looking flag.


Until we lifted off, and it blew over.


Neil saw it [fall down], and he shared it with me. And we decided it wasn’t necessary to inform the public immediately.”


So one might ask why the recent detailed LRO images of the Apollo 11 landing site label details like a camera, but not the flag. A fellow space collector explained to me that once laid flat on the moon, with no atmosphere to protect it for 40+ years of extreme UV exposure and 500° temperature swings, the fabric surely disintegrated. But with no wind, one might assume it would remain intact, undisturbed until this day… and clearly visible, when laid flat, by that LRO mission.


But here arises the peculiar properties of the lunar dust. A recent study by geologist Marek Zbik of Queensland University of Technology finally explains the mysterious properties of the lunar dust from the nanoparticles within:


“That dust, the Apollo crewmen found when they went out to play in it, did some strange things: it rose above the surface when disturbed and hung there far longer than could be explained by the moon's weak gravity; it crept deep into the weave and cracks of virtually anything it touched and clung there as if adhesively attached.


Zbik made his discovery thanks to an instrument known as a synchrotron-based nano tomograph -- a hunk of hardware that didn't remotely exist when the Apollo crews splashed down... The infinitesimal glass bubbles scattered through the lunar material were filled with a highly porous network of alien-looking glassy particles that span the bubbles' interior.


and that would explain a lot. Nano particles can become electro-statically charged, which would impart the same property to the soil, perfectly accounting for its tendency to float. "


The lunar surface swirls in electrostatic eddies, rending the decomposed flag fabric to something unrecognizable. I learned all this after acquiring the beta build, and it makes it seem all the more precious.

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Taken on June 12, 2012