Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Man Flag Controversy in Context

A movie “First Man” about Niel Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, has created controversy on how the planting of the United States flag is kept out. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 16, 1969, the American astronauts stuck a flag next to where they had landed. Five other U.S. flags representing Apollo missions 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 were also erected. The Apollo mission 13 famously failed to land because of malfunctions. For some not adding the flag planting seems to be an anti-American pass. Regardless how a person feels about Hollywood, love them or hate them, the history is more nuanced than patriotism.

That is not to say that patriotism doesn’t play a role. Landing on the Moon was considered the ultimate prize in what is called the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both considered it bragging rights on their way to winning the world’s respect. Two ideologies had fought for influence over twenty years before the landing and would do the same over twenty years after. The race started in 1945 soon after WWII and the defeat of Germany. The Americans and the Russians wanted Nazi cooperating scientists as prizes to contribute to their own scientific advances.

Among the German Nazi specialties was rocket science with the deadly V2 ballistic missile near the end of the war causing havoc in England. At the end of the war the United States and the Soviet Union raced to find rocket plans and experts to capture for further development. The Americans won the prize of capturing leading scientist Wernher von Braun who it is said specifically sought them out. The Russians didn’t leave empty handed, although capturing lesser named individuals. The Russians had their own fellow Soviet patriot Sergei Korolev, knowing covertly as “The Chief Designer,” to lead the race to space. From the beginning going to space could be considered a German-American and German-Russian (after the scientists rejected the Nazi party affiliation) collaboration.

It must be noted that the Soviet Union had no intention of proclaiming they went into space or would be going to the Moon as a “all mankind” achievement. They did it for the ideals of Communism and on behalf of the Soviet Union. The American’s themselves, to also be fair, at first did it for the ideals of Capitalism on behalf of the United States. Causing Americans great concern, the Soviet Union launched the first successful satellite to orbit the Earth Oct. 4, 1957 with Sputnik 1 and the first man to orbit Earth April 12, 1961 with Yuri Gagarin. In response after each Soviet success the United States did the same, with Allan Shepard the first American in Space.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1962 declared:

“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is on that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

At the time it was considered an absolutely impossible dream that soon in time. Many even considered it impossible to ever happen (and strangely some still think it never did). Yet, at the end of the decade on July 16, 1969 Americans did land on the Moon and planted the U.S. flag as a commemoration. And over the years the landing and planting of a flag would repeat.

Probably the biggest misconceptions is that the American flag will be “whitewashed” from the movie, making sure it never appears. Distressing as some will find not portraying the first flag planting, the U.S. flag will be in the movie. The director Damien Chazelle said he left out several moments of the Moon landing events, with the flag planting one of them. The standing US. flag will still be in the film even if not that specific action.

Adding to the controversy that has some upset is the statement by lead actor Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong saying, “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” and choosing to view it that way. Right or wrong, the question of the moon landing as an American or World action has been vague from the start. In January 1969, President Richard Nixon said about the Apollo missions, “As we explore the reaches of space, let us go to the new worlds together – not as new words to be conquered, but as a new adventure to be shared.” Placing the U.S. flag on the Moon when landing wasn’t the only choice presented. There was consideration for bringing the United Nations flag or even a collection of miniature flags from many countries.

Not wanting to make it look like the United States was taking possession of the Moon, a clear violation of International treaties, the U.S. Congress nonetheless passed a bill in 1969 declaring that an American flag would be planted. So long as American money, equipment, and personnel were almost exclusively used, an American flag would be placed for the landing. It was signed by President Nixon and the rest is history. No international incident was caused by the action as no leader spoke out against its presence. A plaque was left behind with the rather inclusive inscription:

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. 
July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind. N 
iel A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin 
Richard Nixon”

The story of the U.S. flags standing on the Moon should end there. It doesn’t. To paraphrase radio personality Paul Harvey, the rest of the story is rather sobering. Picture the blockbuster movie Independence Day that shows a standing American flag, then panning down to the plaque, and finally showing the lunar lander with the American flag before panning up to show planet Earth. A fantasy when it comes to that particular flag. By many accounts, there is no first planted flag standing next to the lunar landing module. Buzz Aldrin said he saw the flag tip over and blow away at the launch back to Earth.

That leaves the others placed on the Moon still standing. Subsequent studies of the Moon, watching for shadows cast by the remaining flags, confirm that the others are still there. That doesn’t mean any of them are in good condition. Mentioning “white washing,” the harsh conditions of open space unprotected by the hot Sun has bleached them all. There are no proper “American” or “U.S.A.” flags that can be easily pointed out. If aliens from another planet were to arrive on the Moon and witness the first human physical evidence, they would be greeted by the international sign of truce or surrender. They wouldn’t know that if this was their first contact, but for humans it is something to think about.

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