Sunday, February 24, 2008

Flying the Flag

Call me patriotic, call me jingoistic or just call me a lover of the American Flag, but it is a truly beautiful flag. It is simple in its design and, yet, complex in its symbolic meaning. The stripes in our country's flag truly reflect the beginnings of a unique experiment in democracy and, yet again, the stars reflect our Union's accomplishments in today's world.

Our country has accomplished many amazing quests in over two hundred and thirty years. The United States flag has flown in some interesting places at the ends of the Earth like the North Pole or the bottom of the ocean and so, it is not surprising that astronauts take the US flag into Space.

The United States flags shown in this exhibit journeyed into Space, but six flags journeyed to an even more unique place on Mankind's greatest expedition of the 20th Century on a voyage to the Moon.

The Apollo Project flew eleven missions from 1968 to 1972. Six of the eleven mission landed on the Moon. The project represented a feat of peacetime engineering that has yet to be rivaled even into the 21st Century.

As with any great journey, it starts with a step forward. After the disastrous Apollo 1 fire, Apollo 7 rose for the ashes to perform a successful test flight of the newly redesigned Apollo Command Module. The crew of Wally Schirra, Don Eisele and Walt Cunningham took the American flag back into orbit after an 18 month hiatus.

Walt Cunningham kept this flag in his personal collection since that flight in 1968. The flag is attached to a standard NASA presentation page of that era. What is difference from other presentations of this type is the pristine condition of the entire presentation as well as a photograph of the crew attached to the display. Walt has inscribed the flag as being flown on the Apollo 7 mission.

Apollo 7's near perfect mission lead NASA to take a momentous gamble to beat the Russians to lunar orbit by the decision to launch Apollo 8 to the Moon. On this first mission to leave the gravitational bounds of Earth, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders brought the flag to further from our home planet then had been done before.

This flag presentation shows its age with some yellowing on the paper display and the discoloration of the double sided tape used to adhere the flag to the page. In June of 2007, Jim Lovell signed the flag at the Kennedy Space Center. Capt Lovell commented on the flag presentation. He remembered the three astronauts sitting down and signing all of these presentations.

The United States had proved that they could orbit the Moon. The next giant step was to land on the Moon, but there were still a few smaller steps to ahead.

One of those steps was to test the vehicle that would land on the Moon. The first major in-flight demonstration of the lunar lander was Apollo 9. This flight would test the Lunar Module (LM) by simulating all the major events of a lunar landing in Earth orbit. The hope was to prove the LM's capability to function in space. It was a extremely complex mission and the crew of James McDivitt, David Scott and Rusty Schweikert would preform it flawlessly. Thus paving the way for another step to a lunar landing.

Apollo 9 carried very little in the way of mementos from the flight, but the flag was there. In September of 2004, I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Scott in Los Angeles. There I showed him the flag shown in the two photographs shown about. The flag had been signed by David previously and the prior owner removed the flag from an old presentation and attached it to a acid free matte.

The final flight test prior to a landing on the Moon was the mission of Apollo 10. Apollo 9 had demonstrated that the LM was flight rated for space travel. Due to several reasons including the need to test the communication systems and lunar rendezvous, Apollo 10 would journey to the Moon and perform descent, rendezvous and docking while in lunar orbit. In a nod to Charles Schultz's comic strip"Peanuts, the strip's two main characters and their use as mascots for the Manned Spaceflight Awareness Program, the crew of Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan would name their Command Module "Charlie Brown and the Lunar Module "Snoopy." Snoopy would descend to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface and then return to Charlie Brown for the trip home. The flight, while being called a "Dress Rehearsal," was the accomplishment of another very difficult step to lunar landing.

The Apollo 10 flag presentation shows what lack of care can do to these displays over time. The prior owner, who received the flag during a presentation ceremony with the crew, framed and hung the display in his home in direct Floridian sunlight. The display seriously darkened over the decades. The signatures faded and the owner tried to redo the signatures with a Sharpie at some point during his ownership. In 2005, I showed Gene Cernan the flag display and the gentleman's presentation plaque that came with the display. Gene recognized the name and remembered the ceremony where the crew attended and presented flown flags to NASA support people who provided outstanding performances during the Apollo 10 mission.

The US flag again accompanied the mission. By this time, the process of bringing the flag to space had been perfected. Under NASA review, flags were vacuum packed into clean room plastic bags with a unique pink tint. The "pink" bags were then placed in the command module by the support crew prior to the launch. Once the mission was complete, the bags would be removed from the spacecraft. Eventually, the flags would be mounted on a standardized presentation as shown in the above photograph. Then the crew would either sign or personalize the presentations (as was done on the Apollo 8 flag presentation artifact shown above) as gifts to VIPs and members of the ground support team.

The Apollo 7, Apollo 8 and the Apollo 10 flags are mounted on the NASA standard presentation display of that era. The three presentations also show the various stages of deterioration that occurs over time. Walt Cunningham maintains his displays away from sunlight and the presentation reflects that care as it is still white. The Apollo 8 presentation shows average aging of these displays. The page has slightly darkened and the double sided tape used to attach the flag to the presentation has darkened and bled through the flag. The Apollo 10 display shows extremely aging, but also reflects the fact that the recipient of the flag proudly displayed this flag prominently in his house during his life.

The final step of landing on the Moon was accomplished by the Apollo 11 mission. The lunar module, codenamed "Eagle," journeyed the last 50,000 feet from low lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon at a place called Tranquility Base on the Sea of Tranquility. With the crew of Apollo 11, so landed the American flag. The first and only flag flown by man to another world. The crew consisting of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin carried US flags and the flags of other countries in both their "Personal Preference Kit" (PPK) bags as well as in the NASA flight kit (those pink colored clean room bags). The current number of flown US flags is not been officially announced by NASA and it is unknown to this author what is the actual number of US flags flown to the Moon on the Apollo 11 flight.

The above flag was part of a presentation Buzz Aldrin made to a Vietnam US prisoner of war. Buzz has inscribed the flag , since it was from his collection. The prior owner detached the flag from the presentation and stitched to an acid free cloth backing to the flag to prevent it from deteriorating.

The prior owner also took the time to privately meet with Buzz in Washington, DC. in 1999 to pose for with the flag.

Apollo 12 was the second flight to plant the American flag on the lunar surface. This all Navy crew of Charles Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean carried several different size flags to the Moon. The most notable is the largest type of flag flown to the lunar surface. The US flag shown above is approximately 12 inches by 17 inches and was flown to the Ocean of Storms about the lunar module "Intrepid" in November of 1969. It estimated that only twenty large format flags were carried to the lunar surface on all the Moon landings.

I procured the flag directly from the collection of the command module pilot, Dick Gordon. The crew had all their flags placed on presentation boards soon after their flight was completed. Dick inscribed the flag presentation board that also has a small typed plaque that reads, "Sailed with Yankee Clipper and Intrepid to the Ocean of Storms, November 1969."

In 2007, I visited Alan Bean at his art studio. The renowned artist inscribed and signed the flag. Then posed with me and the flag. There are examples of his work on the easels behind us. Two of the paintings represent the first man and the second man to walk on the Moon.

Just a short note about flag sizes that the various crews carried to the Moon. There were three sizes. They were labeled small, medium and large on the astronaut's PPK lists. The small flag was four by six inches. The medium sized flag was eight by ten inches. While the large flag was twelve by seventeen inches.

Apollo 13 never landed on the Moon. As NASA's "successful failure," the crew of James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were saved by the determination of the personnel on the ground and their own ability to avoid panic in a life threatening situation.

Once they safely returned from space, they commissioned the Scheduling Office and it's supervisor, Bill Whipkey to design a VIP presentation for their mission. Bill created the above presentation that included a flown flag, flown beta patch and a flown piece of webbing from the lunar module, Aquarius. The crew signed the bottom of each presentation. Bill received two such displays and this one is certified and signed by Fred Haise.

All flown flags are not American flags. Although Uncle Sam's "Stars and Stripes" is by far the most popular flag in the public's mind. The astronauts flew flags from other countries as well as flags from all the states in the Union.

As a resident of the State of Massachusetts, I am partial to the state's flag. I was able to procure one such example directly from Edgar Mitchell, the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 14. The flag along Edgar's other crewmates, Alan Shepard and Stu Roosa traveled to the Moon in the command module "Kitty Hawk." Later Alan and Edgar would land at Fra Mauro and would make the longest "walk" ever performed on the lunar surface.

I journeyed to Edgar's home to pick up the flag, take a certification photo and to sit with him to talk about his experiences.

Apollo 15 was the first "J" mission launched to the Moon. This mission was the first to include a lunar rover as a means to explore farther from the initial landing site. The landing site of Hadley Rille and the Apennine Mountains certainly added to the splendor of the mission. The crew of David Scott, Al Worden and James Irwin would undertake what is considered the greatest scientific mission on the Moon.

The United States flag shown above is directly from Al Worden's private collection and has Al's certification on it.

Al and I met in Denver in 2007, where I was able to photographically document Al with the above flag and written certification.

Apollo 16 pushed the boundaries of lunar knowledge even further with a landing in the Descartes Highlands. Their mission would prove the need for Man's presence in scientific exploration of the Solar System. John Young, Ken Mattingly and Charlie Duke's work would change some of the pre-conceived theories of lunar origin.

They also had drove their rover in the first and only Lunar "Gran Prix" and performed in the lunar Olympics. This mission would also set the record for the highest traverse on the Moon, when John and Charlie drove their rover up the side of Stone Mountain near their landing site.

The above flag presentation was designed by Charlie Duke himself. The flag was flown directly to the lunar surface about the lunar module, "Orion."

I traveled to Charlie's home in 1999 to have him certify the flag as a surface flown flag. We are standing in his home with the presentation and the certification letter that he provided with the display.

As the final mission to the Moon so far, Apollo 17 touched down in the Taurus-Littrow region on the Moon. The crew of Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt would close out the first manned exploration of the Moon in 1972. Man has not journeyed beyond low earth orbit ever since.

This flag presentation is of interest, since it was presented to Howard Benedict, a reporter for Associated Press. Howard covered the Space Race from before America's first manned launch to the Shuttle era. Howard became friends with many of the nation's astronauts and most notably with America's first man in space, Alan Shepard. Howard would later become the executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

The display presented to Howard upon his retirement from the Associated Press. The presentation was signed by 34 astronauts and includes the first American in space and the last man to walk on the Moon.

In the winter of 2005, I bought the display to Gene Cernan. The flag used in the presentation was an Apollo 17 flag. Gene remembered Howard well. Gene even remember the retirement presentation. I had learned that Howard had donated the presentation to a fund raising event for the ASF and it eventually found its way to my collection. Gene certified the flag and posed for this photograph. Thus completing a unique era in exploration.

Indeed these flags have made some remarkable journeys. They represented the United States when the nation showed the world its technological excellence and sent explorers beyond Earth's grasp to land on the Moon.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Apollo 12: A Robbins to treasure

A relic that combines the exploration of the New World
with the exploration of a new world.

In July of 1715, eleven ships of the annual Spanish Plate Fleet departed the anchorage in Havana Harbor and sailed from Cuba on the final leg of it's journey to Spain. The wealth of the Spanish Empire relied on the annual shipments of treasure that the plate fleets brought from the New World.

The "Combined Armada of 1715," loaded with silver and gold from the mines of Peru, Mexico and Columbia and artifacts from the gold and silversmiths in Cuba, sailed north to the east coast of Florida prior to the traverse across the Atlantic to Spain.

The trouble of manning the ships and bureaucratic delays postponed the sailing date until the start the hurricane season. The first week during the cruise up Florida's east coast was uneventful, but on July 31, 1715, the fleet was struck by a severe hurricane just east of Cape Canaveral. The wind drove the fleet ashore just south of the Cape with the loss of all the treasure galleons and most of their crews. After some small salvage attempts by the Spanish in the year following the disaster, the wrecks were lost for the next 250 years.

In the late 1950's, a beachcomber named Kip Wagner was walking the beach near Sebastian Inlet after a violent hurricane. During his walk, Kip spotted a bright object in sand at the water's edge. That bright object turned out to be a Spanish piece of eight. This small find resulted in the discovery of the missing shipwrecks of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet.

Kip salvaged the wrecks for gold and silver. Over the years, the result was the retrieval of more than a $1,000,000 in gold doubloons, silver pieces of eight, gold and silver ingots and jewelry.

The famous Indianapolis 500 race winner and Florida car dealer, Jim Rathman, later became involved with Kip Wagner and his group of divers. Together they formed the Doubloon Salvage Company.

As Jim stated in the above letter written in 2007, he supplied the astronauts with Chevrolet Corvettes during their time with NASA and made friends with several of the astronauts.

Since Apollo 7, the Apollo crews flew commemorative medallions made by The Robbins Company in Massachusetts. The coin designed by the crew and minted in silver was referred to as a "Robbins Medallion." The crews would take the medallions on their flights. They would present the medallions to family and friends as gifts and symbols of their flight into space.

The Apollo 12 crew was no different. Charles "Pete" Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean used their mission patch design for their mission's medallion. The mission patch design use was an Apollo crew standard at the time, but Pete Conrad wanted something unique for his mission's medallion. In early 1969, Jim Rathmann helped Pete procure a silver ingot from the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet wrecks. The relationship between the space center's location and that of the wreck site on the shores of Cape Canaveral probably played a factor in Conrad's decision to include silver from the treasure fleet in the medallions.

Once Conrad procured an ingot from the treasure fleet wrecks, he sent it to the Robbins Company in Massachusetts. The Robbins Company has been designing and making these astronaut flown sterling silver medallions, since the initial request for a unique memento by the astronaut crew of Apollo 7.

When the silver ingot reached the The Robbins Company offices, they, in turn, forwarded the ingot to Handy Company in Connecticut for processing into a flat sheet of pure silver. Once again in possession of the silver sheet, Robbins stamped the first 82 medallions from the Spanish silver. The medallion shown above is number 49. Robbins made a total of 262 Apollo 12 medallions. The other 180 medallions were made from Sterling silver and numbered 83 through 262. The serial number and the word "Sterling" were stamped at the bottom of the reverse of the non-treasure medallions. All the 262 medallions flew to the Moon on the mission.

Normally, Robbins made the medallions out of Sterling silver and imprinted each medal with the word "Sterling." The treasure fleet silver was of a more pure melt, so Robbins did not use the "Sterling" imprint on those medallions.

The difference between the regular medallions and those of the treasure fleet can found by looking at the serial number located at the bottom of the reverse side of each medal as well as the word "Sterling" being omitted from the medallion.

The ingots were manufactured by the local minters in the New World. They made crudely sized ingot of pure silver at the mine sites for shipment to the central port of Havana, Cuba. The above photograph shows the finely finished Apollo 12 "treasure fleet" Robbins medallion with an ingot recovered from the 1715 Treasure Fleet wreck site off of Cape Canaveral in Florida.

In 2007, a reporter from the Robb Report contacted me about space collectibles for an article in the magazine. Sheila Gibson Stoodley came to my home to review the collection for some artifact of interest. Sheila felt that the combination of maritime and space histories made for a very unique anecdote about a space collectible. Her article appeared in the October 2007 edition of the Robb Report as shown above.

The Robb Report article tells the tale of the conquest of the "New World" along with the conquest of a new world. A fitting description for a unique piece of flown space memorabilia.

Photographs 2,3 and 4 are reproduced courtesy of the National Geographic Society, "Drowned Galleons Yield Spanish Gold" Kip Wagner, January, 1965.

Photograph 5 is reproduced courtesy of Farthest Reaches and Steven Hankow, "Jim Rathman Certification," Lawrence McGlynn, April, 2007

Photograph 9 is reproduced courtesy of the Robb Report, "One Last Thing..." Sheila Gibson Stoodley, October, 2007.

I also would like to thank Dick Gordon and Al Bean for answering my questions concerning the silver and the medallions.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Music to the Moon: The Apollo X Music Tape

On May 18, 1969, Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan lifted out from Pad 39B of the Kennedy Space Center launch complex. Their next stop was the Moon. Their mission was the final "dress rehearsal" for the Saturn V, the Apollo spacecraft and the lunar module at the Moon prior to landing.

The trip to lunar orbit would take three days of coasting in deep space. Although the crew remained busy during the translunar coast phase of their mission, there were down times between chores. The crew had a special piece of home in the form of popular music of the time recorded onto a cassette tape by a friend to occupy them during such lulls in the flight.

The cassette tape was recorded by Al Bishop, who was an employee of Boeing at the time. Al hooked a cassette tape player to his stereo and recorded several of the more popular musical artists of the day. Artists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and The Kingston Trio were included on the tape. Mr. Bishop used songs like "Fly Me to the Moon", "Going Back to Houston" and "Moonlight Serenade" to provide a theme befitting a flight to the Moon. Gene had pretty good taste for the popular music of the time.

When the crew returned from the mission, they designed and had constructed a presentation plaque with the actual music cassette. Tom, John and Gene presented it to Al Bishop as gift of gratitude from providing them with some entertainment during their trip to the Moon. When Mr. Bishop passed away, his widow gave it back to Gene Cernan. Gene kept it in his collection for a number of years before parting with it himself.

In the photograph shown above, Gene is displaying the tape presentation while at his home in Texas.

Gene wrote a brief certification "Flown on Apollo X" on the reverse side of the presentation plaque. He signed the plaque using Eugene A. Cernan. Which indicates that Gene signed the artifact when he first started identifying his collection as he only uses Gene Cernan now. I learned that from Gene in December of 2005 during our visit together in Tucson.

In August of 2006, Gene told me that he and Al Bishop spent the afternoon lying on the floor of Al's living room recording all the music on this tape. The quality of the tape reflects that type of early private recording with miscues, skips and clicks that an older record album would make on a turntable. That is what makes the tape so good for historic purposes. These two men took the time to sit, choose and record music for a flight to the Moon.

I was able to gently open the display and extract the tape from the display. After 37 years, the tape still functioned. The music was downloaded into my computer. A compact disk was burned of the music and presented to Gene for his listening pleasure.

Every once in a while I put on my copy of the CD and listen to Frank Sinatra sing "Fly me to the Moon" and know that in this particular case the song really did journey to the Moon.

There is a new development as of 5-19-2005. There are three clarinet instrumentals towards the middle of the album. The songs and arrangements were familar, but I could not remember the musician at the time. I have since found out that the clarinet player, composer and arranger of those melodies was a gentleman by the name of Acker Bilk. He lives in England and stills tours. I contacted him via his website ( and told him the story of his music going to the Moon. Mr. Bilk was requested a copy of the CD. During my meeting with Gene in the summer of 2006, I pointed out that I had found Mr. Bilk. Gene remembered his music and his hit single "Stranger on the shore." It is always interesting to find connections to artifacts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Apollo 14 BEEP BEEP Patch

The astronauts have a sense of humor. Does that surprise anyone? There are many instances where they played practical jokes on each other. Was it to have fun? To relieve stress? To break the tension? Well, you would have to ask them.

One example of the types of practical jokes the astronauts played on each other during the Apollo Era was the Apollo 14 "Roadrunner" or BEEP BEEP Patch.

There are many accounts of the story behind the patch that are detailed in different books such as, "The Last on the Moon" by Gene Cernan, but the basic tale is that the Apollo 14 backup crew used this patch to drive the Apollo 14 prime crew towards their goal of landing on the Moon.

Although the patch was a "Gotcha" on Alan Shepard, the backup crew of Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Joe Engle used the BEEP BEEP insignia as an incentive to the prime crew. It was the backup crew's way of saying train hard and stay sharp or we will take over your flight and beat you to the Moon.

The patch is a play on the popular Warner Brothers "Looney Tunes" Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner animated cartoon. The patch tells the story of the Roadrunner beating the Coyote to the lunar surface.

On the patch, the backup crew is represented by the Roadrunner standing on the Moon with a American Flag and a "1st Team" banner. The Coyote has red fur to portray Stewart Roosa's red hair, the pot belly depicts Edgar Mitchell's exercise regime and the gray beard represents Alan Shepard's advanced age as an astronaut.

The Roadrunner's "BEEP BEEP" has been placed across the top of the patch. The backup crew's names are across the bottom. Finally, the Coyote is in place of the Astronaut pin that is on the original prime crew patch design.

Prior to the launch, the backup crew had final access to both spacecraft. As they were setting guages and switches in the Command Module or packing the Lunar Module prior to loading, they stashed the patches in "every nook and cranny, setting up a future mini-blizzard of 'Gotchas' for the three rookies" as Cernan described in his book.

After launch the Apollo 14 crew was barraged with "BEEP BEEP' patches floating from every where in the spacecraft. Everytime they opened a compartment out would float a patch. Roosa found them in Command Module. Mitchell found them taped to the Lunar Module bulkheads.

The above photograph shows Stu Roosa hold one of the patches for the TV camera. The patch even made the communications circuit as related by this air to ground transmission.

ROOSA: "Hey Fred (Fred Haise of Apollo 13 was capcom) did you hear the last comment I made about ... how clean the spacecraft was?"

HAISE: "Roger, Stu"

ROOSA: "That was planned as you know for all the uh, authorized people who worked on the spacecraft. We're really inundated with unauthorized objects in both spacecraft...I think Ed was showing you one up in there. If you can can see this (Roosa holding the patch)...I don't know if any of the backup crew is in there (MCC) tonight...but they've left their calling card."

HAISE: "OK, we have a pretty good picture, Stu, and they are here."

ROOSA: "OK, tell them we sure appreciate every compartment that we open up having one of these things come floating out..."

HAISE: "They (backup crew) aim to please."

According to Cernan, "Perhaps the most repeated phrase on the private radio loop... (at) Shepard's annoyance when still another patch would suddenly appear (was) 'Tell Cernan, beep-beep his ass.' "

The BEEP BEEP or Roadrunner patch is the only backup crew produced and the only one to fly to the Moon. This was one of the great "Gotcha" gags of the Apollo Era.

In 2004, I traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Gene Cernan to re-certify the patch. Gene got a tremendous kick out of seeing one of his patches again and told the story of it's beginnings and how it got into the spacecraft to me as well as several other people who were gathered to meet Gene.

Gene took the patch and wrote "Flown to the Moon" and signed it Gene Cernan. Gene actually signed it twice. The first time he hit a stitch in the back and messed up the signature. He signed his name a second time at the bottom of the patch.

We then moved on to other artifacts that needed similar treatment and I never took a photograph of Gene with the patch. Oops!

Also in 2004, I went to visit Edgar Mitchell at his home. During our time together, I pulled out the patch and asked him about it. Edgar actually winced when he saw it. He told me the story of entering the lunar module and finding them plastered to the bulkheads and in checklists. The patches were all over the place. He then described how he filmed one of the patches that was attached to the bulkhead of the LM during a TV presentation during the journey out to the Moon.

Edgar graciously agreed to take a picture of himself with the patch and then he, too, signed the back of the patch.

There are just situations that lead themselves to the completion of the provenance of an artifact. My trip to Tucson in 2005 lead to such a situation.

I, again, had the chance to meet privately with Gene and photograph him with the patch.

As I said in the beginning of this post, this was one of the great gags or "Gotchas" of the Apollo Era and it has been worth the effort to get the story behind the patch and put provenance to it.