quality posts: 16 Private Messages WootBot


In honor of the long-awaited return of the critically beloved TV drama Mad Men, we’ve asked Jeopardy! fixture Ken Jennings to educate us on some of the most persistent myths from the Mad Men era. Last month he set us straight on the 1950s; this month, we’re moving right into the turbulent 1960s. It’s often said that anyone who remembers the sixties wasn’t actually there, but luckily Ken was born a decade later, when most of the pot smoke had dispersed and all the go-go boots and lava lamps had been moved to the nation’s attics. So he’s pretty much an expert.

Sixties Myth #1: The United States Landed the First Flag on the Moon.

Unless you’re a conspiracy nut who believes the moon landings were faked on a soundstage in Arizona, you can probably picture the scene: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting a specially made American flag into the dusty surface of the Sea of Tranquility. It takes them a few minutes, since the telescoping rod sticks when it opens and the pole doesn’t stay planted in the soil the first time. But then they step away and there it is, the flag that Congress had authorized “as a symbolic gesture of national pride in achievement.” Buzz Aldrin later wrote that, at that moment, he felt an "almost mystical unification of all people in the world.”

I’m not sure if it’s forgetfulness or patriotism, but few people today seem to remember that the first craft to land on the moon was actually launched by…the Soviet Union. The Russian Luna program sent dozens of numbered craft toward the moon between 1959 and 1976. These were unmanned probes, and many failed at various stages of launch, but others were important milestones in space exploration. Luna-2, launched in 1959, was the first man-made object to hit the Moon (at an impressive speed of almost 7,000 mile per hour--splat!) while 1966’s Luna-9 (pictured here) soft-landed and sent photos back to Earth. Even more impressively, the Soviets accomplished all this while the U.S. was still figuring out how to put men into orbit and Apollo was still just a twinkle in NASA’s eye.

Both Luna-2 and Luna-9, as well as later craft in the series, carried with them a ball of pennants bearing the Soviet coat of arms and the Cyrillic letter “CCCP,” with the express goal of “planting the flag” on the lunar surface, if only in remote fashion. Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man” may have got all the press, and justifiably so, but hundreds of Soviet mini-flags were already scattered all over the moon when he got there. The first American flag may or may not still be standing, by the way. Some space experts say it’s quite possible the flag was blown over by the Eagle’s ascent back into lunar orbit, just hours after it was planted.

Quick Quiz: Astronauts are from the U.S., cosmonauts from Russia. What country’s space travelers are called “taikonauts”? 

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo of Luna-9 by NASA is in the public domain.



quality posts: 1 Private Messages spidergirl42




quality posts: 9 Private Messages 00000100

I would have guessed Japan and hoped that I wasn't being racist.


quality posts: 3 Private Messages daver4470

I'm sorry, but I think this is largely incorrect, or at least overstated.

-- Luna 2, which carried a spherical ball covered with Soviet imagery and slogans, did, as Ken notes, impact the moon at about 7,000 MPH. At that speed, the probe almost certainly vaporized (as the impact would have produced temperatures in the 11,000 degree F range).

-- Luna 9 did soft-land, and did carry pennants. But the pennants did not have the Soviet flag on them. They were tiny (about the size of a lapel pin or thereabouts), and all had the state seal of the Soviet Union and various communist slogans on them.

-- The first Soviet moon lander to carry a pennant with an actual image of the CCCP flag on it was Luna 24, which landed in August of 1976, well after the Apollo missions.

-- None of the US Surveyor landers appear to have had a flag decal on them (as far as I can tell).

Therefore, if you are talking about landing a FLAG on the moon, the Apollo 11 flag is almost certainly the first. Only if you are talking about landing any sort of state symbol can you consider the Soviets as being first.

Here are pictures of the Soviet pennants (for all their interplanetary missions), if you're curious:



quality posts: 0 Private Messages wilgeno

Just because they hurled objects at the moon for 10 years doesn't give them the basis to claim they planted the first flag on the moon. If the US Space program had been concerned with playing a high tech game of darts then I guess USSR won. But we put a man there first and he planted the first flag.


quality posts: 11 Private Messages bongosolo

Regarding the US flag being blown over or remaining standing: don't we have a telescope powerful enough to know the answer to this question?


quality posts: 9 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

wilgeno wrote: But we put a man there first and he planted the first flag.

I hope you're aware that's not really in dispute. The myth being debunked in the title says nothing about a manned landing or "planting" flags. But I don't think the other fact--that years before, the Soviets had landed unmanned capsules full of little national-symbol pennants--is widely known, and I thought it was kinda interesting.

"Taikonauts" are indeed Chinese. "Space" in Chinese is "taikong."


quality posts: 2 Private Messages klozitshoper

Yes, I actually remember watching it on TV.
I was unaware of the other stuff also. Back in the day, only what the US was doing was heralded far and wide - except for sputnik, of course.