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When Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the United States flag on the moon 50 years ago this month—July 20, 1969, to be exact—it was a team effort.
It also represented a major feat of engineering.
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"The flag on the moon is a great illustration of the fact that in space, nothing is simple," said Annie Platoff, a librarian at the UC Santa Barbara Library and a leading expert on the Apollo program's placement of flags on the lunar surface. "For me, the flag on the moon is an excellent example of something that seems very, very simple, but once you really start thinking about it, you realize is very complex."
With virtually no atmosphere on the moon—and, therefore, no wind—flags that fly freely on Earth would hang like limp cloth in the lunar environment. So engineers had to rethink flagpole design entirely, according to Platoff. On an earthbound flagpole, the flag is attached at the hoist—the vertical section closest to the pole—at both the top and bottom of the flag. The pole might slide through a sleeve on the hoist side of the flag, or be attached by grommets or some other type of fastener. A lunar flag, however, is anchored to the pole only at the bottom. It is held in place mainly by a horizontal crossbar at the top.
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"A lunar flagpole has three parts," Platoff explained. "There are two vertical sections, and then the horizontal crossbar that's hinged at the top of the upper vertical section." To deploy the flag, one astronaut used a sampling hammer to pound the lower vertical section into the ground. The other astronaut extended the telescoping crossbar and raised it to a 90-degree angle with the vertical section to click it into place. Then the two astronauts slid the upper part of...
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