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Sample from moon-bound flag goes to auction

LOS ANGELES » It was one small step for man. Now one small strip from the famed flag planted on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission is set to go to auction.

"This is the most-viewed flag in American history," said Michael Orenstein, whose west Los Angeles auction house is handling the Sunday sale that features a piece of fabric shorn from the banner as it was being prepared for the world’s first lunar landing.

Other items on the block include one of the Collier trophies — the so-called Oscar of aviation — that was awarded to the crew of 1962’s Mercury 7 mission and a three-ring notebook used by "Deke" Slayton as he trained to be one of the space program’s first astronauts.

But Orenstein said the sale’s gem is the seven-inch strip of red and white fabric being auctioned along with a photo bearing Neil Armstrong’s autograph on consignment by Tom Moser, the retired NASA engineer who was tasked with designing the moon-bound flag in the weeks before Apollo 11’s 1969 launch.

"It’s right up there with Betsy Ross and the Star Spangled Banner," Orenstein said.

NASA’s original plans didn’t involve planting a flag on the moon because of a United Nations treaty prohibiting nations from claiming celestial entities as their own, Moser said.

But after Congress slipped language into an appropriations bill authorizing the flag’s placement as a non-territorial marker, Moser was told to design a flag that could survive the trip to the moon and be planted on its surface upon arrival.

With the spacecraft’s tiny interior too cramped even for a rolled-up flag, Moser devised a way to fix an aluminum tube with a thermal liner for the banner on the outside of the vessel, he said.

NASA staff bought an American flag off the shelf of a nearby store and Moser had a hem sewn along its top, so a telescoping aluminum rod could be inserted to hold the banner out straight on the gravity-free moon. (On the moon, the rod didn’t extend its full length; the consequent bunching is what makes the flag look like it’s blowing in the wind.)

Meanwhile, a strip of fabric along the flag’s left side was cut to remove a set of grommets, Moser said.

"It was put in the trash can and I just took it out and said, ‘I’m going to keep that,"’ he said.

Moser said he had Neil Armstrong sign a photo of the flag planted on the moon when the astronaut returned to Earth and he kept the picture and his rescued scrap of flag together in his NASA office until he retired in 1990.

But after hanging onto the photo and flag-swatch assemblage all these years, he finally decided to put them up to auction, although he said he’ll miss owning what he sees as a piece of history.

Orenstein said he expects the flag remnant and photo to fetch $100,000 to $150,000 and possibly much more.

"How do you price something like this?" Orenstein said. "If people recognize it for what it is or appreciate it for with it is, it can just keep going up."

Some space scholars, however, appear unimpressed with the artifact.

Since the remnant itself was never launched, its connection to the moon-bound banner has little significance, said Louis Parker, exhibits manager at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"That doesn’t give it any more importance than any other piece of fabric that was here on Earth," he said.

But Moser insisted that the piece does indeed have value, since it represents the beginning of an era of space exploration that now has an uncertain future as the space shuttle makes its final voyage.

"The flag is the icon of the whole accomplishment of the United States being first to the moon and of a great accomplishment for mankind," he said. "Being part of that icon, it has a special meaning."

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