Feathers, flags, footprints, and feces: These are just some of the hundreds of thousands of pounds of things humans have left behind in our voyages to the Moon.
7 Flags (5 standing)
All six Apollo missions planted American flags on the lunar surface. Exhaust from the lunar ascent module flattened the Apollo 11 flag assembly, but based on observations by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the other five flag assemblies are still flying. The seventh flag is a U.S. Marine Corps flag carried to the Moon by Apollo 15 as part of their personal kits.
All seven flags were off-the-shelf purchases, unmodified to tolerate the harsh lunar environment and unfiltered solar radiation. By now, they are likely bleached white and shredded by countless tears from micrometeorites.
96 Bags of Urine, Feces, and Vomit
The exact number of bags is debatable, but astronauts indisputably used the Moon as a latrine. Bags of waste were left on the surface, along with garbage like used wet wipes.
Oddly, this may now be an unintentional science experiment as researchers are curious about the state of naturally-occurring bacteria abandoned for decades with no protection from harsh cosmic rays.
100 $2 bills
The crew of Apollo 15 packed $2 and $20 bills into their personal kits in order to later distribute them as certified flown memorabilia. One package stayed in the command module with Command Module Pilot Al Worden, while Commander Dave Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin brought another package to the Moon. Unfortunately for them, they forgot the personal kit on the lunar surface, making the bills even more prized in their inaccessibility.
The crew were later tangled in a scandal involving unauthorized flown postage stamps, leading NASA to be more strict about what future crews could carry in their personal kits.
The moon is home to enough camera equipment to open a decent second-hand store. Things left behind include modified Hasselblad cameras with thermal protection and anti-static mechanisms, television cameras, lenses, cables, tripods, un-used film, and lens brushes. During Apollo 11 debriefing interviews, Buzz Aldrin recalled, “I remember the gnashing of teeth about leaving a valuable Hasselblad on the surface. And that was to save weight.” But the Moon is home to unintentionally abandoned camera material, too—astronaut Alan Bean forgot several rolls of exposed film on the lunar surface.
Richard Nixon’s Signature
Each of the six moon landers bears a small commemorative plaque containing words of goodwill, signed by the President of the United States of America. Each design is slightly different, but all have one common element: They were signed by President Nixon.
1 Gold Olive Branch and Memorials to Fallen Astronauts and Cosmonauts
Apollo 11 carried a symbolic payload to the surface: a bag holding a silicon disk etched with goodwill statements from presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and leaders from 73 other countries.
The bag also contains a gold olive branch as a symbol of peace, and an Apollo 1 mission patch. Apollo 1 never flew, with the crew killed by a fire during a pre-mission exercise. Unofficially, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong also added Soviet medals commemorating deceased cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin to the bag, and a diamond-studded astronaut pin provided by grounded Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, originally given to him by the widows of the Apollo 1 crew.
Later missions added their own celebrations and commemorations, such as the Fallen Astronaut Memorial assembled by the crew of Apollo 15. The Apollo 15 astronauts had secretly conspired to set up a memorial to lives lost in the space race, commissioning a statue and plaque in memory of astronauts and cosmonauts. The artist later became embroiled in scandal after attempting to sell replicas of Fallen Astronaut statue.
1 Tiny Art Museum
The Fallen Astronaut Memorial might not be the only piece of art on the Moon: Bell labs shrunk a ceramic tile of artwork by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, and Forrest Myers. Rumor is that technicians surreptitiously attached the tile to the leg of the Apollo 12 moon lander, and that it’s still on the Moon today.
1 Lunar Rickshaw, 3 Moon Buggies, and 1 Bible
After Apollo 12 astronauts struggled carrying all their gear around, the next mission provided a pull cart for astronauts to drag equipment and samples. Apollo 14 was the only Moon mission to be provided with a Modular Equipment Transporter.
Future missions switched to lunar rovers to carry their gear and cover greater distances. Apollo 15, 16, and 17 drove on the Moon, using a specially designed, lightweight vehicle stripped down to bare essentials: nylon strap seats with velcro seat belts, a folding chassis, and metal mesh wheels. If you look closely at the dash of the lunar rover for Apollo 15, below, you can spot the red Bible left on the Moon by Commander David R. Scott.
1 Urn of Human Ashes
Eugene Shoemaker aimed to be the first geologist on the moon, but health reasons disqualified him from becoming an astronaut. Instead, he trained astronauts for the Apollo program, but always regretted never getting to the Moon. When Shoemaker passed away, his ashes were transferred into an aluminum, vacuum-sealed urn and wrapped in brass foil inscribed with a verse from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The urn was loaded onto the Lunar Prospector spacecraft, and finally made it to the Moon when the spacecraft deliberately crashed at the end of its mission in 1999.
1 Family Portrait
Lunar Module Pilot Charlie Duke brought his family to the Moon with him during Apollo 16, metaphorically speaking. He brought a 3 by 4 inch family portrait of himself, his wife Dorothy, and their sons Charles and Thomas, and wrote on the back, “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.” He wrapped the photo in a transparent plastic bag, dropped it, and photographed it in situ to prove to his sons that he kept his promise. The Duke family holds other legacies on the Moon: Dot Crater at Station 16 is named for Dorothy Duke, while Cat Crater at Station 14 is an acronym for Charles And Thomas.
James Irwin had a similar idea during Apollo 15: He left flat pieces of silver marked with the fingerprints of his wife Mary and his children.
1 Mascot Feather, 1 Hammer, and a Bunch of Other Tools
Six months before Apollo 15 launched for the Moon, Dave Scott visited a friend teaching at the Air Force Academy. Scott collected a pair of feathers from academy’s mascot, a gyrfalcon named Baggin.
On the Moon, Scott used the feather to conduct a televised physics demonstration, explaining: “Well, in my left hand, I have a feather; in my right hand, a hammer. And I guess one of the reasons we got here today was because of a gentleman named Galileo, a long time ago, who made a rather significant discovery about falling objects in gravity fields. And we thought where would be a better place to confirm his findings than on the Moon. And so we thought we’d try it here for you. The feather happens to be, appropriately, a falcon feather for our Falcon. And I’ll drop the two of them here and, hopefully, they’ll hit the ground at the same time.”
The experiment was referenced in the Apollo 15 Preliminary Science Report, dryly explaining that while the result was predicted by well-established theory, it was “a result nonetheless reassuring both considering the number of viewers that witnessed the experiment, and the fact that the homeward journey was based critically on the validity of the particular theory being tested.”
The feather and hammer from the iconic experiment were unceremoniously abandoned on the surface, later kicked slightly to the side.
2 Golf Balls and Uncounted Improvised Javelins
Video: Commander Alan Shepard plays Moon golf.
Alan Shepard famously played golf on the Moon, strapping an iron onto the handle of a lunar excavator to use as his club. While he claimed the ball went for “miles and miles,” in reality it was about the same distance his Apollo 14 companion Ed Mitchell threw his improvised javelin, a lunar scoop handle. Mitchell wasn’t the only one to transform their tools into javelins: Charlie Duke threw a Solar Wind Collector staff, while Gene Cernan was so eager to throw his tools, he called his heat flow rammer a javelin during radio communications.
1 Sliver of Lava from Devil’s Lake, Oregon
Apollo 15 marked the start of intensive geologic training for human crews, including terrestrial field trips to familiarize astronauts with unusual landscapes. James Irwin met a building inspector named Floyd Watson during one of those field trips. Watson later wrote to Irwin, including a “small sliver of Central Oregon lava, which I hope you will be able to deliver to the Moon for me.” Irwin fulfilled the request, creating a geologically improbable scenario that will baffle future lunar geologists if the story is lost to time.
5 Laser Ranging Experiments
Small perpendicular mirrors on the Moon are still in use today, bouncing lasers from Earth to help scientists measure the exact distance. Apollo 11, 14, and 15 all installed the mirror sets. The then-Soviet space program Roscosmos also delivered two laser ranging experiments to the Moon, mirrors mounted on the Lunokhod 1 and 2 remote-controlled rovers.
Soap, Boots, and the Detritus of Life
Instead of bringing their household supplies back to Earth, astronauts abandoned them on the Moon. The official inventory of discarded items includes watchbands, gloves, boots, lanyards, nail clippers, antibacterial ointments, soap, red and blue towels, and even earplugs.
What’s the state of these items, abandoned on the Moon for decades? Most of it is probably bleached, pitted, and irradiated beyond use. The lines between historical artifact, science experiment, and litter are blurry in space, but groups on Earth are working to legally protect some historical sites on the Moon to hopefully preserve some of these artifacts for the future.
Want more space? Sign up for The Portalist's newsletter, and get the best in space and science delivered straight to your inbox.