What happened to the American flags on the moon?

As a symbol of the Fourth of July holiday, it is easy for the conversation this time of year to turn to iconic American flags, like the flag the Marines raised at Iwo Jima; the one firefighters put up at ground zero; and the one that flew over Fort McHenry and was the inspiration for what would become our national anthem.

As the space shuttle program comes to an end this week, CBS News decided to look into the flags the astronauts left behind on six trips to the moon. What's become of them?

CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the first flag on the moon, it was an act of pure symbolism. A U.N. treaty would not allow the U.S. or any other country to claim the moon as its territory.

Smithsonian curator Allan Needell says the flags planted by the crews of all the Apollo missions that landed on the moon were goodwill gestures to the world.

"By and large, the symbol was very much understood for what it was, as a symbol of pride, but also a symbol of humanitarian accomplishment," Needell says.

As Tom Moser knows, it was also a politically sensitive symbol. An engineer on the NASA team that designed the first flag to go to the moon, Moser was told to keep it hush-hush.

"It was not a military, Department of Defense secret. It was just the fact that politically we didn't want the word out before the event happened," Moser says.

From the beginning, there were technical problems. The Apollo 11 astronauts had difficulty getting the pole deep enough into the lunar soil. And they had trouble extending the full apparatus, designed to keep the flag upright and outstretched in a place where there is never any wind.

Things did not turn out perfectly on the moon, as the flag ended up being bunched up a bit anyway, curator Needell says.

However, the minor malfunction made for an even better effect, the sense that old glory was waving in the breeze.

The flags waving behind are now among the most defining images of our time. But what happened to them is a question University of California Santa Barbara librarian Annie Platoff has been trying to answer.

Her research can account for four of the flags, including the one planted by the Apollo 17 mission. She believes the first two from Apollo 11 and 12 did not survive the ignition gases of the lunar liftoff.

"It wasn't the intention for the flag material itself to last. It was just to be there during the, the event - the landing and departing from the moon. We didn't have a requirement that the flag, the U.S. flag, had to withstand all the environments for eons," Platoff says.

Made from nylon just like the ones at a dime store, though ordered off the shelf from a government supply catalogue, Annie Platoff's theory is they are probably darkened and maybe more than a bit tattered.

"I would guess, over time, 40 years, the combination of sun-rot and micro-meteor impact is probably devastating. I mean it's not a pretty picture to paint. The only way you're going to test these theories is to go back to the Moon and look at the flag," Platoff says.

Chances are, with so much of the space program coming to an end, it is not likely that American astronauts will be the ones to discover whether, after the rocket's red glare, our flag is still there.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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