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. The space enterprise was launched with the Kennedy (colonial) rhetoric of the New Frontier, and it was later celebrated by president Reagan in continuity with the winning of the West: “From the mountains of Kentucky to the shores of California to the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon, our pioneers carried our flag before them…” The astronauts-cum-flag in the famous NASA photographs obviously evoked the images, repeated in prints and open-air statues, of European conquistadores taking possession of other people’s lands in the name of distant monarchs; they still remind those precursors in the posture of the figures, the composition of the frame, the focus on the banner.
This evocation did not please everyone, in the heated atmosphere of the Sixties. As the New York Times of July 4, 1969, reminded its readers, to some Americans the flag was a source of thrill and patriotic emotion, but to others—for instance, some black people—it was a threat. On the moon there were no natives of color to civilize or deport, but earthly racial tensions extended up there. The African American painter and performer Faith Ringgold offered her own Flag for the Moon (1969). The painting depicts a flag, on which, behind the stars, one can make out the word “die,” and the stripes, black instead of white, are arranged to form the word “nigger.” “Die Nigger” was the message of anger to be launched beyond the sky.
It was not only a question of angry Sixties radicals. An official such as Roger Launius, the NASA chief historian (the man who would have liked “to be the first historian into space”), recalled how even in establishment circles there were people who thought that planting any flag up there was a bad idea because of the bad, imperial precedents. Liberal observers, inside and outside NASA, suggested that the astronauts should leave on the moon, along with the Stars and Stripes, the symbol of international cooperation, the U.N. flag. But the House of Representatives objected. It approved a resolution that underlined that the Apollo project was an American project funded with American taxpayers’ money: the space agency had to use only “our flag, Old Glory.”
NASA moved with bureaucratic wisdom. In February 1969, it appointed a Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing, to weigh the technical and political options. The idea of the U.N. flag was considered and set aside, because of the House resolution. The idea of a set of small flags of the whole world was considered and rejected, for the same reason. The national flag was to remain by itself. And yet the committee devised some communication strategies to play down the nationalist impact and the colonial implications. To do so, it used another kind of imperial language, the language of American universalism, of America as the interpreter of the whole of humanity.
The event was to be represented “as an historic step forward of all mankind that has been accomplished by the United States.” The commemorative plaque left in the Sea of Tranquility did not contain the image of the Stars and Stripes, as envisaged at the outset, but the stylized profile of the two terrestrial hemispheres. The inscription in the plaque as well as the famous words (more or less) uttered by Armstrong in the fateful moment, were conceived in the same universalist spirit. Buzz Aldrin, as always, was the most inspired. In an article for the weekly magazine Life, he wrote that, while looking at the flag, he felt an “almost mystical unification of all people in the world at that moment.”