- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Eagle landed on the moon 40 years ago with much ado. Part of it is still there - and NASA has the pictures to prove it.

The space agency released a new photo Friday of the old lunar landing module, perched near a small crater, just as it was when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong gingerly eased down a ladder to make an everlasting footprint in the moon dust.

“We’re looking back in time today,” said Michael Wargo, NASA’s chief lunar scientist.

The photo is the first of many from the lunar reconnaissance orbiter (LRO), a “robotic scout” that left Earth on June 19 and reached orbit 31 miles above the moon four days later. Within two weeks, the diminutive spacecraft began snapping images of the Apollo 11 site - and five other landing areas.

The newly released photos display the same minimalist moon imagery that the Earth-bound audience has become accustomed to over the years. The Eagle is clearly visible in the Apollo 11 shot - a bright, angular object gleaming in the gray moonscape.

“It’s fantastic to see that hardware sitting on the surface, exactly as we thought it would be - waiting for us to come back, waiting for humans to come visit it again,” said Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the LRO and a professor of earth and space science at Arizona State University.

One question has continued to fascinate space buffs - Is the American flagthat was planted near the Eagle by Mr. Armstrong and fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin still where they left it four decades ago?

“Lunar archaeologists, interested in making the Apollo 11 site a National Historic Landmark, hope the planned photos will answer some of these longstanding questions: What is the condition of Tranquility Base after 40 years? Was the American flag blown over on the Eagle’s ascent, and is it now a bleached skeleton?” asked Jason Kottge, a Manhattan, N.Y.-based blogger.

Mr. Robinson did not have a definitive answer to the flag concern.

“Well, that flag, if it is still standing, would appear very narrow in the picture, because we’d be looking down on it. We might see a shadow as well. So you’d have to be pretty optimistic about spotting it. But I think the Apollo 11 flag might have been blown over during liftoff,” Mr. Robinson said.

The $504 million LRO also has provided portraits of the other Apollo landing sites, scattered across the lunar surface, including one image from the Apollo 14 that clearly shows the track marks of astronaut footprints, along with the impressions made by a small service wagon used to transport equipment.

“The LRO is working flawlessly,” said project scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Volkswagen-sized craft is loaded with three high-resolution cameras. The researchers expect the images to improve, offering two to three times more resolution during the year-long mission.

The LRO also has a public relations mission. Its small cargo space holds a microchip containing the 1.6 million names of enthusiastic humans who responded to the agency’s official “Send Your Name to the Moon” contest.

The prospect of space publicity has attracted others. The U.S. Army is offering people a chance to “find out what it’s like to be an astronaut.”

The Army has set up a Web site (www.goarmy.com/space) for the public to question Army astronaut Col. Timothy Kopra about his space experiences. He is one of seven astronauts onboard the space shuttle Endeavour; Col. Kopra will spend the next six months as a flight engineer on the International Space Station.

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