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CHIPS Articles: The American Flag in the U.S. Space Program

The American Flag in the U.S. Space Program
As our nation celebrates the 200th anniversary of our national anthem, we remember the original inspiration for Francis Scott Key's immortal verse, "O say can you see by the dawn's early light ..."
By NASA News - September 15, 2014
"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." So spoke Neil Armstrong after landing the lunar module on the moon's surface. When he and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin descended the stairs of their craft wearing spacesuits prominently adorned with the American flag, they walked into the pages of history.

When Francis Scott Key witnessed the destruction of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, the poem he wrote became a rallying cry that spoke to the greatness of our nation and our resolve to perform the seemingly impossible. For Key and his associates, it was winning a war at all costs; for Apollo's brave astronauts, it was to conquer the unknown. The nation's flag has been that one symbol around which all her people could rally and that to which we have added stars, literally and figuratively.

During the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong and Aldrin weren't just wearing suits adorned by the flag, they also planted a U.S. flag on the moon. Planting a flag on the moon was "a symbolic gesture of national pride in achievement and is not to be construed as a declaration of national appropriation by claim of sovereignty," as outlined in a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in November 1969.

But Apollo 11 wasn't the first NASA mission to feature the American flag. John Glenn's Friendship 7 prominently featured the U.S. flag as did Mars Pathfinder, which landed on the Red Planet on July 4, 1997, our nation's 221st birthday.

As a matter of fact, NASA's spacecraft and launch vehicles have always been decorated with flags. When Ed White became the first American astronaut to perform a spacewalk on June 4, 1965, his spacesuit was one of the first to be adorned with a flag patch. White's crewmate Jim McDivitt also wore a flag on his suit. The astronauts purchased the flags themselves, but following their flight NASA made the flag patch a regular feature on the space suits.

NASA video with Astronaut Reid Wiseman commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the raising of the American flag over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 14, 1814 which inspired Francis Scott Key to scribe 'The Defence of Fort M'Henry' which became the lyrics of our national anthem. Image Credit: NASA. Tune into: http://www.nasa.gov/starspangledbanner/.

An adult osprey, carrying a fish in its talons, prepares to land in its nest atop a speaker platform in the Press Site parking lot at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper.
An adult osprey, carrying a fish in its talons, prepares to land in its nest atop a speaker platform in the Press Site parking lot at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper.

A close-up view of the U.S. flag deployed on the moon at the Taurus-Littrow landing site by the crew of Apollo 17. The crescent Earth can be seen in the far distant background above the flag. The lunar feature in the near background is South Massif. While astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt descended in the Lunar Module "Challenger" to explore the lunar surface, astronaut Ronald Evans remained with the Apollo 17 Command and Service.
A close-up view of the U.S. flag deployed on the moon at the Taurus-Littrow landing site by the crew of Apollo 17. The crescent Earth can be seen in the far distant background above the flag. The lunar feature in the near background is South Massif. While astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt descended in the Lunar Module "Challenger" to explore the lunar surface, astronaut Ronald Evans remained with the Apollo 17 Command and Service.

This image is of the first printing of Francis Scott Key's poem, Defence of Fort M'Henry, which became the lyrics for the national anthem. Image Credit: Library of Congress.
This image is of the first printing of Francis Scott Key's poem, Defence of Fort M'Henry, which became the lyrics for the national anthem. Image Credit: Library of Congress.
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