July 16 -- 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.