What You Can’t See in the Iconic Moon Landing Photo

You know the photo: Buzz Aldrin, standing on the moon and saluting the American flag.

Zoom in. What’s really in the image? Why is the flag waving? Where are the stars? And how did those shadows get there?

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, USA TODAY spoke with experts at NASA and reviewed its archives to explain the most notable details in the famed photo. Spoiler alert: Not everything went as the space agency planned it.

The flag, a topic of many a conspiracy theory, probably toppled over when the astronauts departed, and medals for Soviet astronauts lie on the surface as well.

Here’s the backstory of what you’re seeing in the photograph.

Who’s in the suit? And how we got to the moon in the first place

On July 20, 1969, around 11:40 p.m. EDT, the scene depicted in one of the most iconic photos ever taken unfolded.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were more than 110 hours into the historic moon landing mission when they planted a U.S. flag. Video of the event was broadcast to millions back on Earth.

Aldrin stepped to the side to raise his hand in salute. Armstrong stepped back to photograph the moment.

“It’s such an iconic image,” said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a historian for the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This has become part of American culture. … You see this photo in textbooks.”

The photo was taken during the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned moon landing. Aldrin and Armstrong landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface as Command Module Pilot Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit.

The mission came amid an intense space race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both the United States and the USSR rapidly advanced in technological achievements of spaceflight, a national security concern during the nuclear arms race.

Though the Soviet Union sent the first person into space, the United States took the lead in the space race when it landed two men on the moon.

About the flag: It fell over

Photos of the U.S. flag planted on the moon have been topics of conversations concerning patriotism and conspiracies ever since the world first saw stars and stripes on the lunar surface.

However, the flag probably isn’t still standing.

The working presumption at NASA is that the flag fell, said John Uri, manager of the Johnson Space Center History Office. Aldrin said he thought he saw the flag tip over from the exhaust when the lunar module lifted off, and the shadow of the flag is not visible in satellite images.

Uri said later Apollo missions placed flags farther from their lunar modules to prevent them from tipping over. It’s likely that the colors have faded over the years from extreme exposure, Uri said.

Why isn’t the flag drooping?

As expected, hoisting a flag presented NASA engineers with a number of technical problems, Anne Platoff wrote in a paper in August 1993 for NASA on the history of the Apollo 11 flag.

Because the moon has no substantial atmosphere, NASA scientists led by Jack Kinzler designed a horizontal crossbar to support the flag and keep it from drooping down, Platoff wrote.

A hem was sewn across the top of the 3-by-5-foot nylon flag so the bar could go through, then be lifted and locked into place at a 90 degree angle. The flagpole had a base that allowed it to more easily be driven into the moon’s surface, and a red circle was painted at 18 inches from the bottom to help judge how deep it needed to go.

The astronauts struggled to drive the flag’s base beyond 6 to 9 inches deep into the surface, which probably contributed to the flag falling.

The flag traveled to space tacked onto the ladder on the lunar module, so the astronauts could access it when they walked on the moon. A protective shroud was built to protect the flag from the heat from the engines.

Packing the flag involved a 12-step process and five people, Platoff wrote. Eleven steps were needed to mount the flag on the ladder. The astronauts were able to access it by removing pins and Velcro it was attached to. (And no, NASA didn’t invent Velcro during the Apollo missions, though it did popularize its use.)

What caused the ripples in the flag?

Many say the flag in the photo looks like it’s flowing in the wind. Conspiracy theorists cite this as evidence the moon landing was filmed in a warehouse with air conditioning creating the ripple. That’s false.

The horizontal crossbar was supposed to give a slight wavy effect as in a breeze, Platoff wrote, and Aldrin and Armstrong said they had trouble pulling the flag out all the way.

What you can’t see: A golden olive branch and hidden messages

The flag was among various commemorative items that Aldrin and Armstrong left on the moon’s surface.

stainless steel plaque noting the feat of the first manned moon landing, a silicon discwith messages from world leaders in tiny text and a small pouch with an Apollo 1 patch, medals honoring two Soviet astronauts and a small gold olive branch were also left on the moon, according to NASA.

The patch commemorates Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died in a launchpad fire in 1967.

As for the Soviet medals, Aldrin and Armstrong honored Vladimir Komarov, who died during the Soyuz 1 mission when his parachute failed, and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space. NASA did not officially acknowledge at the time that the Soviet items were left on the moon.

Aldrin’s book “Men from Earth,” published in 1989, detailed the full contents of the packet they left, according to NASA.

The flag serves as “a sign of what America really accomplished,” Ross-Nazzal said. Though there were concerns that it would appear that the United States was “claiming” the moon, that was never the intention, she said.

“It shows a sense of accomplishment and proof that we’ve been there,” she said.

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Source: USA Today