The Space Race was a competition for space exploration between the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States beginning in the late 1950’s. Fueled by the Cold War and the feel of urgency to be the first developing additional nuclear weapon technology, the Space Race involved the launch of artificial satellites, sub-orbital and human orbited spaceflights around both Earth and the moon. The ultimate goal for the USSR and the United States was to have the first person to land on the moon.
With several setbacks in both space programs, the United States continued to pursue landing on the moon under the notion the USSR was just as close as they were to launching the initial flight for a manned lunar mission. However, the USSR had suffered too many setbacks in technology, financial and personnel in the 1960’s, leaving them further behind in the Space Race than desired.
In July 1969, the United States launched Apollo 11, the spaceflight that carried the first people to land and walk on the moon. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969, uttering the infamous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin joined him shortly after, helping him setup the iconic flag in lunar soil.
Prior to space and lunar exploration, the United States was one of several countries worldwide in 1967 that signed the United Nations ‘Outer Space Treaty,’ formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The treaty would not allow the U.S. or any other country to claim the moon – or any other celestial property – as its territory. A committee within NASA was selected in early 1969 in preparation for the first lunar landing to select symbolic activities or items that would be sensitive to and not violate the Outer Space Treaty. The committee evaluated several options, including leaving a United Nations flag, small flags for each country, or a plaque.
The United States opted for the U.S. flag and a commemorative plaque. The U.S. flag was placed in the lunar soil as a symbol; it was seen as a symbol of not only pride, but humanitarian accomplishment. The two United States astronauts also left a plaque, displaying nothing specific to the United States, but instead of the eastern and western hemispheres, on the moon during the first lunar landing stating, “Here men from planet Earth first set foot up the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” There was little criticism about the U.S. flag being used on the moon’s landing.