On July 20, 1979, the tenth anniversary of Apollo 11, a Cincinnati reporter asked Neil Armstrong how he felt saluting the American flag from the surface of the moon. “I suppose you're thinking about pride and patriotism,” he replied. “But we didn't have a strong nationalistic feeling at that time. We felt more that it was a venture of all mankind."
So why did they leave behind a flag representing only a fraction of humankind?
In the earliest days of the space race, many seemed to take it for granted that someone's national flag would someday be stuck in lunar soil. "We don't want to find the hammer and sickle flag standing up on one of the peaks of the moon," said Democratic Representative Overton Brooks of Louisiana, chair of the House Science and Astronautics Committee, early in 1961, before the U.S. had even put any human in space. "We want it to be the star-spangled banner."
But in the months leading up to the Apollo 11 landing, a vigorous debate unfolded about alternatives, both inside and outside government. Some proposed unveiling a UN flag, others miniature flags of all nations. But in a heated appropriations debate scarcely a month before liftoff, congressional power brokers made their wishes clear. “You might have some nice international implications by using somebody else’s flag,” said Republican Representative Burt Talcott of California. “But I think you would have some very bad internal reactions and a great reduction in funds for NASA if anything like that happened.”
So on June 10, 1969, NASA notified Congress that it would indeed plant the American flag on the lunar surface. Soon thereafter, Congress passed a law declaring that "the flag of the United States, and no other flag, shall be implanted on the surface of the moon.” After all, said Republican Representative Richard Roudebush of Indiana, “U.S. taxpayers paid for the trip.”
It was arguably not our legislature’s finest hour.