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BY GEORGE: 'And our flag was still there'

Images taken by high-resolution cameras on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that five of the six flags erected by Apollo astronauts are still standing.

We recently celebrated the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. For those of us old enough to recall exactly where they were when Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin descended onto the Sea of Tranquility, it seems especially nostalgic.

Among the many “Kodak” moments from that mission, Armstrong and Aldrin promptly erected an American flag near the descent module Eagle. The deploying of the Lunar Flag Assembly, as it was known officially, would be repeated by each subsequent pair of moonwalkers.

Over the years, many have wondered what became of those historic banners. NASA officials never intended for the 5-by-3-foot nylon flags to last indefinitely. In fact, they didn't really have a plan for the flag-raising until about three months before Apollo 11's launch. As a matter of fact, the historic flag was purchased, literally, off the shelf for $5.50 at a local Sears store.

Aldrin reported seeing Apollo 11's flag blown down by rocket exhaust as he and Armstrong blasted off the lunar surface, but it's taken sharp-eyed detective work by Mark Robinson and his Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team to learn the fate of that one and all the others. With a resolution of just 1.6 feet (0.5 meter) per pixel.

"Bird's-eye" view of the Apollo 16 landing site, as recorded by a high-resolution camera on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The spacecraft was angled15° toward the Sun, which revealed the shadowed side of the flag.

Because they've been exposed to 40 years of harsh, unfiltered sunlight and space radiation, Apollos flags should now be pure white, their colorful stars and stripes having bleached out completely. In any case, LROC images show that the banners are still standing at five of the landing sites — and even Apollo 11's can be made out lying in the lunar dust. (The fact that they've whitened over time actually makes them easier to spot.)

By: George Elliott