One Giant Leap for Mankind

Today is 20 July 2019; fifty years to the day that humans first set foot on another celestial body marking the culmination of the Space Race and one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements.

To commemorate the occasion, we’re flying a flag featuring the NASA Insignia, a streamlined version of the NASA seal. Other than the the fact that it contains text, the insignia is a perfect centerpiece for a flag. It’s striking without being too busy and it’s easy to sketch. It also has nice, clear symbolism.

From the NASA website:

The round red, white and blue insignia, nicknamed the “meatball,” was designed by employee James Modarelli in 1959, NASA’s second year. The design incorporates references to different aspects of the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The round shape of the insignia represents a planet. The stars represent space. The red v-shaped vector represents aeronautics. The circular orbit around the agency’s name represents space travel.

The Symbols of NASA
The NASA insignia and the more formal seal

We spent a decent amount of time deciding which flag to fly for the occasion. Our first thought was the Earth Day flag, and then an Earth Day flag with a stylized crescent moon and the southern cross, but neither of those seemed to feature the Moon clearly enough. There were other options, but the NASA flag seemed most appropriate.

The first two options above could be deemed “photograph flags” and, for my purposes, flying a flag based on a photograph seems fine. If any of the images below were available in flag form, we might have chosen it. Perhaps I’ll order one of these custom made for the 51st anniversary.

The flag played a prominent role in the Lunar Landing. One of the more dramatic moments was the raising of the flag, which I can clearly remember seeing on the teevee. I explicitly recall being puzzled about the flag’s behavior. It seemed to snap out with the top sticking straight out from the pole. I was only five, but this seemed strange. I’d seen flags before and they certainly didn’t do this. It must be something strange about space, I thought. Or the Moon. Or something else. Here’s the news footage.

Astronauts Plant the American Flag on the Moon.

Turns out the flag had its own “frame.” Five year old me missed that. If you have any doubts about the significance of the flag in this event, let’s turn to Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century. Published in 1986, this book is a collection of Clarke’s speculations about the state of life and technology on this very day. The first chapter is a fictional letter, written by Clarke himself, from his home in Clavius City, Luna on the book’s titular date. It begins thusly.

It doesn’t seem like fifty years – but I cannot be sure which memories are false and which are real. Present and past are inextricably entangled. The monitor screen has just shown the ceremony at Tranquility Base, culminating with the third hoisting of the American flag. It was blown down, of course, by the blast of the Eagle’s ascent stage, and lay there on the trampled Moon soil for thirty-six years until the Apollo Historical Committee reerected it. Then the big quake of 2009 knocked it down again; this time, we’re assured, it would take a direct hit by a fair-sized meteor to lower it…

Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century

It’s a romantic image; historical societies reerecting and preserving the flag for future generations to see and enjoy, but sadly, that may never come to pass. The condition of the flags on the moon is a subject of speculation. The conditions are harsh. The surface is bombarded with UV radiation without the protection we receive from Earth’s atmosphere and the temperature ranges from -280 to +240 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the flags could have disintegrated entirely. At a minimum, the flags must be so sun bleached that they are now completely white. At least as recently as 2012, however, there was evidence that the flags of Apollo 12, 16 and 17 were still standing. You can read about the condition of the flags in the links below.

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