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.