On July 20th, 1969, an American astronaut named Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind and became the first person to walk on the surface of the moon. The world watched in amazement as NASA’s Apollo 11 rocket thrust into the atmosphere.
Over 53 million households made up of over 650 million viewers tuned in to witness the mission live on air, making it the most watched television moment at the time.
To put it into perspective, the first moon landing was watched by around 27 times more people than the series finale of “Game of Thrones” was.
NASA’s 1969 moon landing has been at the heart of many conspiracy theory debates for over half a century. To mark the historic achievement, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were instructed by president Richard Nixon to plant an American flag on the surface of the moon.
According to Nixon, this was in honor of every US taxpayer who contributed to the Apollo 11 program. The flag was packed and mounted on the side of the lunar module, near the ladder, to make it accessible to astronauts, according to a history of the flags compiled by NASA.
The flagpole had to assemble easily because the heavy gloves that astronauts wore limited their movements. Subsequent Apollo missions would also plant flags, ending with Apollo 17 on December 11th, 1972.
American astronauts setting foot on the moon was a triumphant finale to the infamous “space race.” This was a ruthless rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve firsts in spaceflight capability.
So it’s no surprise that this achievement was celebrated by leaving a US flag on the moon as a memento. Any new visitors to the moon’s surface would be reminded of the American’s victory in the space race.
The United States is the only country where people have physically placed flags on the moon. Four other countries — China, Japan, India, and the former Soviet Union have sent unmanned spacecraft or probes to the moon. Those crafts carried emblems from their countries.
How many flags are there on the moon?
There are six flags in total planted on the moon’s surface. These flags all come from America’s various Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The first flag that was erected on the moon in 1969 is made from nylon and was purchased from a government catalog. Because of this, the flag was not designed to withstand the harsh conditions of outer space.
Some experts theorize that some of the flags may have turned white over time due to sunlight exposure and space radiation. Some even believe that the fabric may have disintegrated completely.
However, a review of some photos taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that the flags that were erected during the Apollo 12, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 missions were still standing as of 2012.
However, the original flag from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was not visible. Buzz Aldrin claims that he saw the flag blow over during lift off from the moon’s surface because of the power of the engine exhaust.
Experts are inclined to believe this account, as the flag hasn’t been sighted since. As the Orbiter camera can only capture the shadow of the flags around poles, we know that they’re still there but we can’t see them.
How can I see the flags on the moon?
Regardless of whether or not all of the flags are still standing or if their colors remain vibrant, you still wouldn’t be able to see it, even if you’re using a telescope. Even the powerful Hubble Space Telescope isn't strong enough to capture pictures of the flags on the moon.
The flag is 125 cm (4 feet) long, and you would need an optical wavelength telescope around 200 meters (650 feet) in diameter to see it. The largest optical wavelength telescope that we have now is the Keck Telescope in Hawaii which is 10 meters in diameter.
The Hubble Space Telescope is only 2.4 meters in diameter - this is still much too small. Even if it was big enough, we still wouldn’t be able to see the flags.
This is because the atmosphere it is looking through is not perfectly uniform, and this degrades any telescope more than a few meters across as if the telescope’s lens itself were imperfect.
How can I see a star that is thousands of lightyears away, but not a flag on the moon?
This is a common statement that’s often brought up by conspiracy theorists. However, the answer is simply just the difference between detection and resolution. The star is against a dark, or at least a much darker background.
Therefore the telescope can collect enough light to detect the presence of the star, compared to the dark. But it can’t tell us anything at all about the size of that star, only that something bright is there.
It can’t tell us if there’s a second star twice as far away and almost co-linear with it. It can’t pick out the individual stars in a distant galaxy because they are too close together.
The surface of the moon is no more evenly colored than a desert here on Earth, so your telescope can’t distinguish a “pixel” representing a square kilometer of moon containing a US flag about a meter across, from another square kilometer pixel missing that flag.
The flag makes a change of only one part in a million, and that much only if the flag were jet black.
How powerful would a telescope need to be to see the flags?
If a telescope with the correct aperture and focal length to view the flags on the moon was built, it would be gigantic.
In fact, the diameter of the telescope would span nearly ⅔ of the width of Central Park in Manhattan.
Also, the focal length would reach from the northern edge of Central Park all the way past Madison Square Gardens.