Apollo 16 astronaut John Young salutes the American flag. What flag, or flags, will future astronauts bring with them to the surface of the Moon? (credit: NASA)
by Mark Whittington
The recent flap over the omission of the raising of the American flag on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission in the new film First Man illustrates not only the importance of symbols in our understanding of history but how different people regard the same symbols differently. Some Americans were incensed at the omission of the flag raising at Tranquility Base. The makers of the film insist that their decision not to include that event was an artistic decision and one not meant to denigrate the unique role that the United States played in landing a man on the Moon.
With a number of nations aiming toward the exploration of the Moon, one is reminded that love of symbols such as national flags is not unique to Americans.
When the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-1 orbited the Moon in 2008, it sent a small impact probe with the Indian flag painted on it to crash on the lunar surface. At the time, the Hindustani Times announced that the “Tricolour has landed on the moon,” referring to India’s saffron, white, and green flag. The image likely did not survive impact. However, Chandrayaan-2, which seeks to soft land on the Moon early next year, will likely have India’s national flag on its side for future lunar tourists to see.
SpaceIL, a private Israeli group, also plans a lunar landing early in 2019. The Times of Israel notes that the Israeli Star of David flag will be displayed on the lunar surface, a point of pride for a country that has been seen as a center of conflict and controversy but is now making its technological prowess known.
Going further into the future, President Donald Trump has directed NASA to return astronauts to the Moon. The program seems to have gained acceptance in Congress and aerospace and science circles. However, contrary to the Apollo missions, which were entirely American undertakings, future trips to the Moon will have international and commercial partners. The need to share costs and the desire for space exploration diplomacy make this arrangement useful. Thus, the next people to set foot on the Moon will come from several nations.
This prompts a question: What unifying symbols will the first humans back to the Moon raise on their landing site? Apollo 11 had two, the American flag and the plaque that announced that the astronauts had come “in peace for all mankind.”
No doubt some sort of plaque will be unveiled about humans returning to the Moon with appropriate, feel-good verbiage. But what about flags? Should the next people on the Moon unfurl flags announcing from where on Earth they came?
The simple solution would be to have each astronaut fly their national flag: the Stars and Stripes standing side by side with the flags of other countries. But some, no doubt, will wonder if displays of nationalism in the form of national flags would detract from the international nature of the next Moon landing. Why not instead design a custom flag that represents every country and commercial entity involved in the return to the lunar surface?
One can just hear the heated arguments that will surely erupt a decade hence, shortly before the rocket that will redeem the Moon for humankind lifts off. Can one still feel national pride in such a mission while at the same time appreciate its international nature?
Whatever is raised on the lunar surface to celebrate the return to the Moon, one can hope that this time it will be of material that will not be bleached white by the sun’s unfiltered ultraviolet rays, as the old Apollo flags have been over the past five decades.