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Look at this famous photograph of the July 1969 moon landing. It depicts the American flag, Apollo, the lunar module (LEM), and an astronaut.

 

When we look at an image like this, historians ask not only what the image shows us, but also how the image was used and how various audiences reacted to it. On the one hand, the photograph itself represented a triumph of technology. Minimally speaking, U.S. technology met the challenge of preserving film against the high temperatures on the moon, temperatures at which film burns. Yet the


Moon Landing, July 1969.

impact of this image did not rest in its technological prowess. Rather, the image of the flag of the United States was the focus of worldwide attention. Because the photograph was distributed in print media and television, it had a global audience.

 

Historians studying this image are careful to place it in its proper historical context. This context included other popular images of the American flag burning during anti-war riots, the use of the flag to symbolize a vision of America as a Christian nation, the increasingly common and controversial use of the flag in commercial advertising, and the flag as a symbol of American intervention abroad. Depending upon one’s view about the Vietnam war, the religious nature of American society, the propriety of using a national symbol for marketing purposes, or of America’s role on the global stage, the flag could be either a positive or a negative symbol. Thus, when we read an image of the American flag flying over the moon on that July day, historians are careful to see more than just a simple representation of American national sovereignty.

 

For example, in the United States, the reaction to this photograph ranged from strong pride at the achievements of the American space program to despair that so much money had been spent on the program when social problems were great, to the firm belief that the entire moon landing was a hoax. Reactions abroad included all of these, plus concern that the United States was asserting control over the moon in the face of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that guaranteed the use of space to all peoples “irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development.” Only when we are alive to these many possible reactions to just this one photograph can we begin to arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the use of such an image.

 

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