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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thanks Snoopy - are you still out there?

by Mark Ollig

This mission was the decisive dress rehearsal.

It was the last practice run for identifying and resolving any loose ends, and it happened just two months before one of our planet’s most memorable events.

A very young yours truly was seated on the floor of the family living room; my eyes were intently focused on the images being shown on the screen of the Zenith console color television.

It was May of 1969, and Walter Cronkite was reporting from the CBS News Apollo Headquarters in New York.

Cronkite usually provided much enthusiastic commentary during these televised NASA space missions.

The Apollo 10 mission was the crucial test flight needed before the scheduled July moon landing of Apollo 11.

Apollo 10 was to make a “dry run” of all the operations and maneuvers necessary for a lunar module to land on the moon, and then rendezvous with a lunar-orbiting command module.

Apollo 10’s lunar module would not physically land on the moon; this would happen during the mission of Apollo 11.

It was said the lunar module was going to be “snooping around” the moon’s surface, so they named the Apollo 10 lunar module “Snoopy.”

Of course, it then made sense to name the command module, the spacecraft all three astronauts rode to and from the moon in, “Charlie Brown.”

May 22, 1969, Apollo 10 had achieved an orbit around the moon. Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford entered and undocked the two-stage lunar module from the command module.

With Snoopy now floating free in moon orbit, they began their descent towards the grayish lunar surface.

The command module, piloted by astronaut John Young, would continue to orbit the moon.

Snoopy tested its guidance computer, landing radar, and radio communications with Charlie Brown and Mission Control in Houston, TX.

They practiced firing the lunar module’s reaction control system (RCS) thruster quad engines, tested the lower-stage descent propulsion system, radar, and completed other procedures needed to simulate landing and taking off from the moon.

Snoopy also made a survey of the Sea of Tranquility, the designated landing site for Apollo 11.

Using a new color television camera system, they showed the moon’s surface to everyone back on Earth.

The one thing Snoopy would not do is actually land on the moon; however, during the practice landing, Snoopy’s descent rocket engine was fired, and the lunar module did descend to about 9.5 miles above the moon’s surface.

I often wondered if the two astronauts aboard Snoopy were ever tempted to keep descending and land on the moon.

Cernan and Stafford had the lunar lander to do it with, and besides, they were very close to the moon’s surface.

I later learned things would not have ended well if they would have set Snoopy down on the surface of the moon.

If Snoopy had landed on the moon, there would not have been enough fuel remaining in the propellant tanks of the lunar module’s ascent stage (the upper portion of the lunar module containing the astronaut’s crew cabin) for them to take off and successfully reach a high enough lunar orbit to rendezvous with the command module.

Yes, they could have taken the spotlight away from Apollo 11 by landing on the moon first, but they both would have ended up being marooned there.

On the other hand, John Young, orbiting the moon in the command module, would have been able to return to Earth.

Of course, Snoopy did not waver from the planned mission, and the astronauts carried out and successfully completed the practice moon landing with professionalism and skill.

Having achieved all of the low lunar orbit objectives, Stafford and Cernan fired Snoopy’s upper ascent stage rocket in order to gain altitude, and make a rendezvous with the command module.

Snoopy’s bottom platform lander section (descent stage), having already been released from the ascent stage, slowly fell towards and crashed onto the moon.

So, a part of Snoopy did, in fact, make it to the moon’s surface.

Approximately eight hours had elapsed since Cernan and Stafford began working inside the lunar module.

They were now in the proper lunar orbit for docking Snoopy’s ascent stage module with the command module.

After docking and boarding Charlie Brown, the astronauts jettisoned the abandoned Snoopy into space.

Once Snoopy’s ascent stage had drifted to a safe distance from the command module, NASA Flight Control in Houston remotely ignited its ascent rocket engine.

Snoopy’s ascent stage was programmed to journey into space, in order to drain its remaining fuel supply.

The Apollo 10 mission was a success, and May 26, 1969, all three astronauts safely returned to Earth.

Today, the Science Museum in London is the current home of the Apollo 10 command module, Charlie Brown.

It can be seen here:

But where is Snoopy’s ascent stage?

Snoopy’s crew cabin, the ascent stage where Cernan and Stafford hovered over the moon, has been in a “heliocentric orbit” (traveling around the Sun) – for the last 46 years.

In fact, Snoopy is the only surviving Apollo lunar module ascent stage still voyaging through space.

Apollo 13’s lunar module; Aquarius, which did not land on the moon, but was instead used as a lifeboat to get all three astronauts back to Earth in April of 1970, burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere after being jettisoned from the Apollo 13 command module; just before splashdown.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum records the fate of all Apollo lunar modules here:

NASA’s website lists the present location of all the Apollo command modules at:

The website also includes video clips of Snoopy and Charlie Brown: