An article by Arnaldo Testi, author of the forthcoming Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History.
When, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong raised the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface, the message was clear: a message of success and national pride sent to the whole world. And yet, behind that flag raising, there were also concerns and controversies. The colors of the U.S. flag had already been in space, they adorned missiles, satellites, astronauts’ coveralls. Planting a real flag on the moon was, however, another matter, which had much stronger symbolic meanings and historical implications.
The Apollo project, of course, was a grand gesture of Cold War, an episode of the competition with the Soviet Union. We are entering the space age, president Kennedy said in 1962, and “we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” Kennedy’s reference to a hostile flag was not metaphorical. In 1959, the Soviet probe Lunik 2 had struck the moon surface, taking with it the banner of the USSR. The U.S. government became nervous, and it hastened to clarify that it was not enough to “stick a Red flag in the ground” to advance claims on the moon. The nervousness became irritation when Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Washington on an official visit bringing as a gift to President Eisenhower a replica of that banner, and announcing with mischievous magnanimity:
“We entertain no doubt that the splendid scientists, engineers, and workers of the United States of America […] will also carry their flag to the moon. The Soviet flag, as an old resident of the moon, will welcome your pennant and they will live there together in peace and friendship as we both should live together on the earth in peace and friendship.”
On the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, the Soviets did it again. In May 1969, they landed two capsules on Venus containing a medallion with the emblem of the USSR and a bas-relief portrait of Lenin. Playing the game of symbolic national politics seemed a necessity for everyone, the natural thing to do–and now it was the turn of the United States. In fact, had this not always been the case? “It’s a characteristic of previous explorations, to plant a symbol upon arriving at a new shore,” Buzz Aldrin recalled later. “I certainly felt that the American flag is what belonged there.” But it was precisely this allusion to historical precedents that worried some people.
In the 1950s, the comparison between space exploration and the geographical exploration conducted in the past by European colonial powers had been discussed by legal experts. Outer space did not come under the sovereignty of any known—that is, earthly—state; it was considered open to discovery and conquest, perhaps by means of the old criteria of territorial appropriation and the old rituals (indeed, by planting a banner). This “colonial” paradigm was finally rejected by the U.N.-sponsored Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an agreement on the peaceful exploration and nonacquisitive use of space. Taking one’s own flag to the moon could no longer, in any way, mean claiming sovereignty over it.
And yet the colonial paradigm persisted in American public discourse. Continue reading