When it landed on the Moon, the Eagle lunar lander bore a plaque inscribed with the message “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” But Armstrong and Aldrin planted an American flag on the Moon. Initially it was thought that a United Nations flag would be better, because it wouldn’t imply that the US was claiming possession of the Moon – the United Nations Treaty on Outer Space prevents any territorial claims. So the flag-raising was strictly a symbolic activity, but Congress amended NASA’s appropriations bill to prevent astronauts from placing flags of other nations, or those of international associations, on the Moon during missions funded solely by the United States.

Erecting a flag in low gravity was an interesting technical problem for NASA’s engineers, and thrusting it into the lunar surface proved very difficult for the astronauts. The flag’s apparent motion has long been a topic of contention for conspiracists who think the lunar landing was faked, but their arguments have been well and truly debunked.

Apollo 11 plaque
[Image credit: NASA]

The lunar landing is seen as the moment in which the US won the space race, knocking the Soviets back into their rightful secondary place. What’s less well known is that just 10 days after making his famous announcement that the US would reach for the Moon, President Kennedy reached out to the Soviet Union with the idea of making it a joint mission. Nikita Khrushchev declined the offer, but there are suggestions that he had warmed up to the idea by the time it was repeated in September 1963. However, fate would intervene – Kennedy was assassinated shortly afterwards, and Khrushchev was ousted from office. And so it was an American flag that was erected on the Moon.

Keith Wright, a British engineer working at the Kennedy Space Centre in 1969 told the BBC that a British flag also made it to the Moon, in secret. He and his team were working on experiments to be deployed on the lunar surface.

“There were two brackets on the experiment which held the solar panels folded while travelling to the moon. We got a ball pen and signed our names. I signed my name and I thought, well, I’ll put ‘UK’. Then I thought, I’ll draw a little Union Flag. So we had a little Union Flag sketched onto there, installed it on the experiment package and it went to the moon.”

In an earlier post, I tried to celebrate some of the more diverse people who contributed to the Apollo program. What has struck me since then is how much more of an international effort it was than is generally thought, and how much it relied on immigrants. It began, of course, with the German scientist Werner von Braun, who had been developing rockets for Hitler during World War 2. At the end of the war as many rocket scientists as possible were whisked across the Atlantic (and some made it to Russia, too) to work on the US rocket program, for weaponry, and ultimately for space travel. von Braun was embraced by America, and eventually became a US citizen, and it’s only really now that people are paying attention to the fact that he was a Nazi, and his German rocket program relied on slave labour from concentration camps.

The untimely demise of the Avro Arrow, the Canadian project developing an experimental, delta-winged, supersonic interceptor jet, led to a group of Canadian aerospace engineers being recruited to NASA in 1959, when the agency needed more minds working on the problems of human spaceflight, and was having trouble recruiting civilians to work on the space program. (And there were also British engineers working on the Avro Arrow.)

The BBC documentary Rocket Man: NASA’s Welsh Hero celebrates the contributions of Tecwyn Roberts, who developed the Deep Space Network that allowed communications between Earth and the Apollo spacecraft.

If you’re really interested, NASA have a very detailed PDF about how they made Apollo television work, which explains that there were receiving dishes in Australia (Honeysuckle Creek, HSK), Madrid (MAD) and Goldstone, California (GDS). These were 26 metre dishes, and for Apollo 11 two 64 metre dishes were added, one in Goldstone and the other at Parkes in Australia, which would be able to receive much weaker signals. The Parkes dish is the hero of the film The Dish, which is entertaining and well worth watching, but not entirely historically accurate. It is true, though, that transmissions from Parkes continued despite a dish-threatening wind storm, and that the quality of their pictures was so good that NASA took almost all of the footage of the lunar landing from their transmissions. (There’s also a post on The Conversation that explains it more readably than the NASA doc!)

ESA have a good article about the Spanish dish, and the English edition of El País has some wonderful recollections from the Spaniards who worked there during Apollo.

The Lovell Telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory
The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, June 2019

From Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, a dish called Arthur beamed the moon landing to television sets across the UK and Europe.

And then there’s Jodrell Bank. During the Second World War, a scientist called Dr Bernard Lovell had been working on radar. At the end of the war he returned to his research at the University of Manchester, investigating cosmic rays (the influx of high energy particles from space). At the time, he was working with an ex-military radar detector unit, but his results were being compromised by interference from Manchester’s electric trams. So he moved his equipment to a remote location, the University’s botanical station at Jodrell Bank, 20 miles south of Manchester.

Initially, the radar signals received at Jodrell Bank came from meteors, and the facility made a slew of important discoveries, including the existence of daytime meteor showers and confirmation that meteors were members of the solar system. In 1947 a larger aerial was constructed at Jodrell Bank, but again no cosmic rays were detected. Instead, the astronomers investigated mysterious sources of radio waves far out in the universe, eventually detecting radio waves from the Andromeda galaxy. These new discoveries paved the way for the telescope for which Jodrell Bank is now famous.

Trials of the Mark 1 telescope began in the summer of 1957, and was the only telescope in the world able to track the rocket launching the first space satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. It was then in demand for tracking and commanding space probes from both the Soviet Union and the United States, although that was not its primary function. The telescope also played a part in the early warning system for ballistic missile strikes.

Jodrell Bank’s ability to intercept signals from space vehicles and interpret their general meaning provided an independent confirmation of the progress of the space race, in an era when official news about Soviet space events was not always trustworthy.

In July 1969, Sir Bernard Lovell and his telescope team were tracking Luna 15, an uncrewed Soviet space probe that would be in orbit around the Moon at the same time as Apollo 11. The launch of Luna 15 had taken the US by surprise, and there were some concerns that it may interfere with Apollo 11, but that didn’t happen. The plan for Luna 15 was that it would beat Apollo 11 to the Moon and scoop up the first lunar samples to be returned to Earth, but it was not to be – the spacecraft crashed into the Sea of Crises while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the Moon.

The Jodrell Bank dish has received some major upgrades over the years, and was renamed the Lovell Telescope on its 30th anniversary in 1987. Two years ago, the telescope celebrated the 50th anniversary of the discovery of pulsars, and on Sunday 17th July 2019, the Jodrell Bank Observatory was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, in recognition of its internationally significant heritage, science and cultural impact.

I am sure there are plenty of other international aspects to the space race that I haven’t uncovered, and it’s fascinating to watch them emerge 50 years after the event. Since then, space has become far more international.

The first joint US-Soviet spaceflight finally took place in 1975. The Interkosmos program saw the Soviet Union send astronauts from other nations into space between 1978 and 1991, including the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman. This was followed by the Shuttle-Mir program, and finally the International Space Station, which has Russian and American sections, but welcomes astronauts from all over the world. The ultimate fate of the ISS remains unclear, with NASA funding not expected to be extended past 2025. Russia, China and America remain the only countries to have actually launched humans into space. China’s Tiangong-2 space station has just been ‘deorbited’ at the end of its mission, which was to pave the way for a more permanent Chinese presence in space.

The International Space Station in Oct 2018
[Image credit: Roscosmos/NASA]