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Flag Day 2020 – One Small American Flag’s Incredible Journey

This is the story of one small American flag that was fortunate enough to be singled out from a group of one thousand flags just like it and embark on an incredible journey. What happened to the other 999 flags is not fully known, but the travels of this one flag are well-documented. It wasn’t the first flag to ride on a crewed spacecraft into space — that one flew aboard Freedom 7 with Alan B. Shepard on May 5, 1961. Or the most famous flag that went into space — that one was probably the Stars and Stripes planted on the Moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin on July 20, 1969. Other American flags have flown on spacecraft not just to other planets, but out of the solar system entirely. And tens of thousands of other small flags have thundered into space aboard Space Shuttles and returned to Earth to be distributed around the world. So what makes this one small flag so special?

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Left: Launch of Space Shuttle Columbia on the STS-1 mission,
April 12, 1981. Right: Landing of
Columbia, April 14, 1981.

Space Shuttle Columbia first lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on April 12, 1981, to usher in a new era of reusable crewed space transportation. It carried not only its two pilots, John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen, but stowed away in the lockers in the Shuttle’s middeck, along with food, clothing and other supplies, were items in the Official Flight Kit (OFK). Many of the OFK items were destined to be distributed after the mission to commemorate its historic significance. Among the items were 1,000 8- by 12-inch American flags. Once they returned to Earth and workers removed them from the Shuttle’s middeck, many of the flags were distributed to various people and organizations. But some remained and ended up in storage at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. As the Shuttle program progressed over the next 30 years, the number of flags in storage dwindled as additional recipients were identified. Finally, in 2011 it was time for the last Shuttle mission, STS-135, and NASA felt that it would be a fitting tribute to refly one of the flags from STS-1 on the final flight. Since STS-135 was delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), the flag would be left on board until the next time an American spacecraft carrying American astronauts launched from American soil arrived at the station. At the time, no one knew exactly how long that would take.

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Left: Launch of STS-135, July 8, 2011.
Right: The crew of STS-135 pose with our flag on the flight deck of

On July 8, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off to begin STS-135, the final mission of the program with Christopher J. Ferguson, Douglas G. Hurley, Sandra H. Magnus and Rex J. Walheim aboard, and two days later, they docked with ISS. The six international crewmembers of Expedition 28, Andrei I. Borisenko, Aleksandr M. Samokutyayev, Ronald J. Garan, Sergei A. Volkov, Michael E. Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa, welcomed them aboard. The long-term plan for the little flag was publicly revealed during a live TV session between the crew and President Barack H. Obama. “I also understand that Atlantis brought a unique American flag up to the station,” said President Obama. Shuttle Commander Ferguson explained that before their departure they would present the flag to the crew aboard ISS, where “it will hopefully maintain a position of honor until the next vehicle launched from US soil brings US astronauts up to dock with the space station.”

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Left: The crews of STS-135 and Expedition 28 pose with our flag.
Right: The crews of STS-135 and Expedition 28 place our flag on the hatch of the Harmony module.

During a televised ceremony on July 18, near the end of the docked phase of STS-135, the crews placed the flag, flanked by the patches of the first and last Space Shuttle missions, on the forward hatch of the Harmony module, from where Atlantis would soon depart and where the next American crewed spacecraft would dock.  After the Shuttle and its crew left, the flag remained on the hatch for a while, but as time passed, onboard crews needed to use that area for stowage and so they moved it to a nearby wall for safekeeping. In 2015, to further safeguard the flag against damage or loss, Mission Control asked the onboard crew to place it in a stowage bag. As sometimes happens with stowage bags, this one was moved around and ended up in a different module of the station. Three years later, during a general inventory of stowage bags, the flag was found and placed in a bag with the words “Flown on STS-1 & STS-135. Only to be removed by crew launching from KSC” attached.

iss20_flag_day_flag_and_patches_on_harmony_hatch iss20_flag_day_flag_near_hatch_in_harmony_may_29_2014 iss20_flag_day_flag_from_exp_56_jul_3_2018
Left: Our flag, placed between the STS-1 and STS-135 patches on the Harmony module’s forward
hatch as
Atlantis was preparing to depart. Middle: In May 2014, during Expedition 40, the flag was mounted on
a wall near the Harmony module’s hatch to allow that area to be used for stowage. Right: Our flag in July 2018
during Expedition 56, placed in a bag for safety.

On May 30, 2020, a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from KSC’s Launch Pad 39A, the same pad used for STS-1 and STS-135, carrying SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on its Demo 2 mission. Aboard were Doug Hurley, who flew aboard the last Shuttle mission, and Robert L. Behnken. They were the first American astronauts launched aboard an American spacecraft from American soil since STS-135. Once in orbit, Hurley and Behnken announced that they had christened their spacecraft Endeavour. The next day, Endeavour docked with ISS, and Hurley and Behnken came aboard the station, welcomed by Expedition 63 Commander Christopher J. Cassidy and Russian Flight Engineers Anatoli A. Ivanishin and Ivan V.  Vagner. Mounted on the open hatch as they floated aboard ISS was our intrepid little flag, in space for nine years and 39 years after making its first trip into space. After their arrival, Cassidy, Hurley and Behnken held a press conference and proudly displayed the flag whose long journey was nearing its end, as the crew of Endeavour planned to bring the flag back to Earth at the end of their mission. But there’s already talk of possibly sending the flag on even more distant journeys.

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Left: Our flag, on the Harmony module’s forward hatch, opened to welcome the
SpaceX Demo 2 crew. Right: Expedition 63 crew members (left to right) Behnken,
Hurley (holding our flag) and Cassidy during a press conference.

Since it arrived on ISS, the flag has seen 100 visitors come and go, some of them more than once; most stayed six months, some stayed longer, up to almost one year. A few made short visits of about a week. During all that time, the space station was a busy beehive of activity, with hundreds of experiments conducted by the international crews. Many astronauts ventured outside to repair equipment, place new experiments out or bring older ones back inside. And in that time, the flag traveled more than 1.3 billion miles. 

After waiting for nine years, it’s good to know that our flag was still there.