Flag controversy goes beyond Earth
The ongoing debate earthlings are having over the U.S. flag and American exceptionalism have not only crossed national borders but has now slipped the surly bonds of our planet.
After the film “First Man” opened at the Venice Film Festival last week, the movie about that first moon landing immediately caused a stir as critics felt it ignored the moment Neil Armstrong planted the U.S. flag on the moon.
Canadian actor Ryan Gosling who portrays Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, fueled the controversy by stating that the moon landing was widely seen as a “human achievement” and that’s what the film reflects.
Gosling is correct that this was a human achievement. Armstrong, who died in 2012 at age 82, reflected that with his famous first words after stepping onto the lunar surface — that’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
When asked in an interview what it feels like to have his footprints remain on the moon’s surface for thousands of years, Armstrong later stated, “I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up.”
Apollo XI crew members designed their own mission patch, which featured an eagle holding an olive branch in its talons. According to Collins’ book “Carrying the Fire,” the crew also left their names off the mission patch to make the mission more representative of humans in general.
The iconic photograph of that period showing Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting an American flag on the lunar surface made Americans proud.
It’s important to know the context of the times we were in during that first moon landing. During the 1960s, the space race with the Soviets dominated the news. President John Kennedy set a high bar for space exploration in 1961, defining America’s goals in a historic speech at Rice University in Houston.
“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” Kennedy said. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Television, the new medium for delivering the news, helped mold the “Soaring ’60s” and elevated our American astronauts to hero status. Many Americans saw the Soviets as villains while pioneer astronauts such as John Glen, Alan Shepard and Apollo XI crew members Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong were our superstars.
Tom Moser, a young engineer at the Johnson Space Center in 1969, was the person who had to figure out how to fly a U.S. flag on the lunar surface. He remembered a mandate from someone in Congress to “make it happen,” but that it had to be done quietly, because putting a U.S. flag on the moon was politically sensitive.
Anne Platoff, a historian who wrote about the Apollo 11 flag in a paper, “Where No Flag Has Flown Before,” explained that the United Nations had passed a treaty stating “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation.”
Shortly after last week’s flag controversy erupted, we learned that although the film fails to mark the moment of the flag planting by Armstrong and Aldrin, it was not totally removed from the movie. In several shots the flag can be seen waving on the lunar surface.
There are now six U.S. flags flying on the lunar surface, each one left by crew members from the other Apollo missions. When astronauts return to the moon in about two years, crew members from several other nations will likely be represented and several foreign flags can then join the U.S. flag lineup on the moon.
Neil Armstrong’s hope for one giant leap for ALL mankind will have new relevance even though the debate over American exceptionalism will likely continue around the world and even inside our own borders.
By Jim Zbick | firstname.lastname@example.org