You know the campus legend that says there’s a Michigan flag on the Moon?
It’s not true.
Here’s what is: Two alumni set foot on the lunar surface on the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. They established a chapter of the University’s alumni association on the Moon. They carried with them about 20 flags into orbit.
But according to Harm Buning, a retired aerospace engineering professor who knows the Apollo 15 astronauts personally, rumors of an extraterrestrial block M flag being only one of two along with the U.S. flag are misguided.
Buning said he thinks the rumor started because of the 20 miniature Michigan flags that accompanied the astronauts as they broke the bounds of Earth but never left the spacecraft. Upon their return to Earth, some of the flags were given to the aerospace engineering department. Buning keeps one at his Ann Arbor home. None of the flags ever made it to the lunar surface.
University lore, though, insists one did.
The rumor has been passed down through the years. It showed up recently in the planner the University distributes to freshmen. It is also a staple of Campus Day tours.
The Facebook.com group “Oh Ya? Well We Have a Flag On the Moon Bitches” has more than 500 members.
Aman Sharma, a member of the group, said he was shocked to hear the rumor isn’t true.
“I am incredibly surprised that my campus tour guide would make that up,” he said. “I feel let down.”
Not all students are as willing to wave a white flag of surrender about the legend.
Despite being told otherwise, Nathan Falstad, also a member of the Facebook group, maintains there is a Michigan flag on the Moon.
“It went up with an all-Michigan flight crew on Apollo 17,” he said.
An all-‘M’ crew
The three astronauts on the Apollo 15 crew -James Irwin, David Scott and Alfred Worden – all had ties to the University.
Worden remained in lunar orbit on the spacecraft while Irwin and Scott explored the surface.
Scott only attended the University for a year. Irwin earned two master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and instrumentation engineering at the University in 1957. Worden completed the same degrees in 1963. Scott studied mechanical engineering for a year at the University before transferring to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Irwin, Scott and Worden all received honorary doctorates of science from the University in 1971 after completing the moon mission.
After cruising around the surface in the first-ever trip in the Lunar Rover, the astronauts left a document on the Moon establishing a lunar branch of the University’s alumni association.
It reads: “The Alumni Association of The University of Michigan. Charter Number One. This is to certify that The University of Michigan Club of The Moon is a duly constituted unit of the Alumni Association and entitled to all the rights and privileges under the Association’s Constitution.”
One other space mission had an all-Blue crew, according to Aerospace Engineering Prof. Luis Bernal. The 1964 Gemini 4 mission’s two astronauts had degrees from the University. Jim McDivitt earned his bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering in 1959. Also on the mission was America’s first spacewalker, Edward White, who earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University in 1959.
Personal preference kits
Michigan astronauts aren’t the only ones who have taken personal items into space.
Astronauts are allowed to bring what NASA calls “personal preference kits.”
The kits typically contain sentimental items like family jewelry, sheet music, poetry and photographs.
Although the kits are not supposed to exceed a certain weight, these restrictions were not closely monitored until after the Apollo 15 mission, so the three alumni brought extra items.
Artifacts that have been in orbit are considered invaluable, and those that have been on the moon are even more sought-after.
“Since only 12 humans trod the lunar surface, the supposed earthly rarity of the stuff drives collectors to pay enormous prices for the items,” NASA historian John Hargenrader said.
According to Hargenrader, the material benefits of space-traveled objects were clear to the astronauts of the Apollo 15 mission.
Motivated in part to provide for their children’s education – and probably for less noble reasons as well – the astronauts struck a deal with a German seller to bring postal stamps into orbit and sell them at a later date for a huge profit, he said. At the time, the deal was legal.
When the German seller started selling the stamps openly, the astronauts were subjected to a Congressional investigation. After this incident, a new policy was put in place that required all items carried into space be registered with NASA.
The most sought-after moon souvenir is lunar dust from spacesuits or equipment, Hargenrader said. But don’t bother trying to buy a rock from the moon – lunar rocks are government property and cannot be sold.