Stars, Stripes and Space: NASA and the 50-Star American Flag
The first American flag in space, flown nearly a year after the nation adopted of the 50-star version on July 4, 1960.
Credit: Smithsonian

Fifty years ago today, on Independence Day 1960, the United States officially adopted use of the 50-star American flag, increasing the star-count by one to recognize Hawaii's statehood. This, the 27th update to the star-spangled banner, became the U.S. flag to be longest used and the only one to represent the nation in space.

Despite having launched satellites for two-and-a-half years prior to the 50-star flag being unfurled, the country's first flag did not enter space until nearly a year after the banner was introduced.

The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, was launched on Jan. 31, 1958 without the stars and stripes adorning its or its Juno 1 rocket's body. Once it was confirmed Explorer was in orbit, its designers announced their success at a press conference, lifting a replica of the man-made moon above their heads.

A now-famous photo captured William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hoisting the full-size Explorer 1 model adjacent to a 48-star American flag.

The first U.S. probe to enter space after July 4, 1960, was Echo 1A, a Mylar inflatable 'satelloon' that was launched on August 12, 1960. Its ride to orbit, the first successful Delta rocket to fly, was decorated like other boosters of its day. The rocket had "UNITED STATES" stenciled on its side, but no flag.

The first 50-star flag to fly in space ? indeed, the first American flag have ever left the planet ? did so in May 1961, alongside another U.S. first: Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut in space.

Students' stow-away stars and stripes

The first American flag to ride the "rocket's red glare" did not originate with the President or Congress, or even from NASA officials. The man who would fly on the suborbital mission with the banner, Alan Shepard, was even unaware that it was onboard.

The 23- by 36-inch cloth flag came instead from a school located near Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the flag and Shepard would launch aboard Mercury-Redstone 3 on the spacecraft "Freedom 7."

"The student council president and the principal of Cocoa Beach School near the Florida launch site gave the flag to a reporter, who in turn gave it to the head of the NASA Space Task Group, Robert Gilruth, with the request that it be included on Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3), if possible," according to a description on the Smithsonian's website. "The flag was rolled up and stuck in a wiring bundle in Shepard's spacecraft, Freedom 7, although he was not aware that it was there."

"After the mission, Gilruth returned the flag to the school, which was later called the Freedom 7 School."

In 1984, after the school closed, the flag was donated by the Brevard County Board of Education to the National Air and Space Museum.

But Mercury 3 was not the only flight for the first U.S. flag in space. It reached orbit onboard the 100th U.S. manned flight, STS-71, which also marked the first docking of a U.S. space shuttle to Russia's Mir space station.

After returning from space in 1995 for a second time, the flag was presented by Shepard and STS-71 commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson" for display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida, where it remains today.

Continue reading at collectSPACE about where NASA has flown the 50-star flag since Mercury-Redstone 3.

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