The flag is no longer standing. In fact, it’s been flat on the ground since the moment Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off. As the Eagle module ignited its engines and rose, spewing exhaust around, Aldrin caught a glimpse of the flag falling from his window.
The flag, made of nylon, was an off-the-shelf purchase. Unlike Earth, the moon lacks an atmosphere capable of blocking out the worst of the sun’s rays. It wouldn’t have taken long for the ultraviolet light to eat away at the dye and bleach the flag white. “Have you ever seen burnt newspaper from a fireplace? All the color is gone and everything,” says Dennis LaCarruba, who worked at New Jersey-based company that manufactured the flag. “That’s probably what the flag would look like now.”
The photographic evidence for this came decades later, thanks to a NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft that still circles the moon today. The spacecraft’s camera photographed several Apollo landing sites. The NASA astronauts who flew to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s always brought American flags with them. In photos of later Apollo missions, you can see, amid all the pockmarked gray terrain, a little white smudge, and, right next to it, a slightly bigger, black smudge—a flag, faded from the glow of the sun, and its shadow.