Why The 'Flag Waving' Moon Landing Conspiracy Makes No Sense

Almost everyone has seen the famous photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing next to an American flag with his feet firmly planted on the moon. Old Glory appears to be rippling in the wind, similar to how flags on Earth move on a gusty day. While that makes for a great photo, some people, including dozens of conspiracy theorists, have used the waving flag as evidence that the moon landing was a hoax because there is no atmosphere on the moon.

The argument that there is no atmosphere on the moon is correct. Well, almost no atmosphere. According to NASA, the moon has a small atmosphere that includes a few gases. The Lunar Atmospheric Composition Experiment placed on the moon's surface during the Apollo 17 mission has detected small amounts of helium, argon, and possibly neon, ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide. That said, the agency reports that the atmosphere on the moon is barely perceptible compared to what we have on Earth. So, if there is not enough of an atmosphere on the moon to cause a flag to wave, what's really going on?

Experts planned for the occasion

The answer has to do with the hardware the astronauts used more than anything else. Annie Platoff, a librarian at the UC Santa Barbara Library, explained that while placing a flag on the moon seems like it would be easy enough to do, it was actually a significant accomplishment. She described how engineers had to design a special flagpole to make the flag look like it was waving in the wind. The pole was unique in several ways, but a horizontal crossbar at the top made it possible to keep the flag from falling limp on the lunar surface.

The flag was also different because it included a sleeve along the top edge, which was made to fit the crossbar. One reason the flag looked like it was waving in the wind was the fact that it was wrinkled from the long trip, according to Platoff. Another was that the astronauts did not extend the top crossbar all the way, which caused certain sections of the flag to gather in some spots, adding to the windblown effect.

The flag is probably long gone

There are a total of six flags on the moon from Apollo missions, according to the Apollo Lunar Space Journal. That said, there may be little left of the Apollo 11 flag after more than 50 years on the lunar surface with no protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays. Tony Reichhardt, author of "Finding Apollo," wrote that the flag would have been bleached white within a few years, and over time, the fabric would have deteriorated.

As far as the other five flags go, Mark Robinson, a scientist at the Arizona State University, told Space.com that he believes the nylon flags may have suffered the same fate. Images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from 2011 show paths made on the moon made by rovers and even some equipment that was left behind, but Robinson says even they won't last forever. It may take 10 million years or so, but the micrometeorites that hit the surface of the moon will eventually wear down any evidence that humans made it to the moon.