It was a top secret project mandated by Congress in the spring of 1969. The job: Figure out how to fly the U.S. flag on the moon during the historic Apollo 11 mission.
The success or failure of the project depended on a small team of engineers at the Johnson Space Center, including Tom Moser, then a young design engineer at the Johnson Space Center.
"Someone in Congress said make it happen, but it had to be done quietly, because putting a U.S. flag on the moon was politically sensitive," said Moser, who is now retired.
Bought Off the Shelf
Flying a flag on the moon wasn't simple. First, NASA officials would have to side-step a United Nations treaty that bans the national appropriation of outer space or any celestial bodies.
It also involved tricky technical issues that no one had dealt with before. Where do you put it on the lunar module to protect it from the elements, for example? And how do you make it easy for an astronaut to locate and deploy?
Moser started with an off-the-shelf flag that cost $5.50. The Technical Services department at the Johnson Space Center then developed a collapsible flagpole with a telescoping horizontal rod sewn into a seam on the top of the flag to extend it outward.
The flag was encased in a heat resistant tube attached to the ladder of the lunar module. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could simply detach it after they descended to Tranquility Base.
The design team flew out to the Kennedy Space Center just days before the launch. At 4 a.m. on July 16, 1969 — the morning of the launch — the team mounted the flag to the Lunar Module of Apollo 11 as it sat atop a Saturn V rocket.
The flag would be left on the moon along with a plaque that reads: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."
Tom Moser was watching the famous lunar landing from home with his family and friends on July 20, 1969, along with millions of people around the world. He recalls holding his breath until the Lunar Module touched down.
"I watched Neil Armstrong go down the ladder … it looked like he fell, I thought he had caught his spacesuit on the ladder, that it had ripped his suit open, and that was the end of manned space flight and it was all my fault," he said.
The ladder did not fail, the flag did not snag Neil Armstrong's suit and Armstrong did not fall. He just skipped the last step, jumped to the moon's surface, and said those memorable words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
The flag was deployed at 4 days, 14 hours and 9 minutes into the mission and it wasn't easy.
In Edgar M. Cortwright's book, Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, astronaut Buzz Aldrin recalled what happened when he and Neil Armstrong tried to set the flag up.
"It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a public relations disaster," he wrote, "a small telescoping arm was attached to the flagpole to keep the flag extended and perpendicular. As hard as we tried, the telescope wouldn't fully extend. Thus the flag which should have been flat had its own permanent wave."
The wrong coating had been applied to the telescoping rod, so it wouldn't fully extend, which is why the flag looks like it is waving in the wind. Ironically, that famous picture of Buzz Aldrin posing next to the flag is often cited as evidence by conspiracy theorists as proof the mission to the moon was a hoax.
They claim the rippled flag could not have actually been on the moon since there is no breeze on the moon. The flag's waves, they argue, were created by a breeze in some top secret NASA stage set depicting the moon's surface.
There were political implications as well, according to Anne Platoff, a historian who wrote about the Apollo 11 flag in a paper, Where No Flag Has Flown Before. She explains the United Nations had passed a treaty stating "outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies is not subject to national appropriation."
The United States would not and could not claim the moon. Instead, raising the flag would be a symbol of the single-minded pursuit that began with President John F. Kennedy's pledge to Congress on May 26, 1961:
"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
Now there are six U.S. flags on the lunar surface, left by the crews of each Apollo mission. Each flag was deliberately designed with the same flaw to prevent the horizontal telescoping rod from fully extending.
So when astronauts from the United States, or another nation, return to the moon, they will still find the rippled flag flying at Tranquility Base.