The Search For Snoopy

July 17, 2014 9:50 am

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at 02:56 UTC on 21st July 1969, it was the culmination of a decade of work by some of the brightest minds in the world spearheading the Apollo project. We know much about the men who made this most historic of journeys – but comparatively little about the backroom teams and the hardware they designed to enable that trip to take place.

Snoopy is out there somewhere, 45 years since he was abandoned in space.

Snoopy is out there somewhere, 45 years since he was abandoned in space.

Two months earlier, on 18th May, Apollo 10 rumbled off the Launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center to begin mankind’s final dress-rehearsal for the big day. Commander Tom Stafford and his crewmates John Young – who was already a space veteran, went on to walk on the moon on Apollo 16 and command two shuttle missions – and Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan (to this day the last man to walk on the moon in 1972) were to fly an exact copy of the Apollo 11 landing planned for July, with one noticeable difference. There would be no moon landing. Instead, Stafford and Cernan would undock from their mother ship, the command module christened Charlie Brown and take their bug-like lunar module Snoopy to within ten miles of the moon’s forbidding surface, to replicate as much as possible the mission facing their colleagues so very soon.

Both spacecraft were named in honour of the prolific cartoon characters created by Peanuts artist Charles Schulz, a favourite of the US public as the flower-power era drew to a close with violent clashes between civil rights activists, anti-Vietnam war protestors and the Police on the streets of Chicago, Detroit and a great many other American cities.

Stafford and Cernan avoided a near-calamitous mission failure and crash into the lunar surface when a switch was set incorrectly onboard Snoopy to return to the command module and the orbiting Young, having come as close as 8.4 miles to Earth’s celestial companion. Cernan remarked after that they seemed to be below the peaks of mountains, so close was their brush with the lunar surface.

His mission completed, Snoopy was now a dead weight that would slow the astronauts return to Earth in the command module. So, as with all other lunar modules throughout the Apollo program, he was cast adrift to the tender mercies of deep space by a crew who bid him a fond farewell, leaving the stars and stripes hanging in his cockpit.

Forty five years later, those men are pensioners, with whole families and business enterprises, conferences and conventions that have sprung up in the intervening period and demand their time. Yet somewhere out in the void of interplanetary space, their spacecraft flies silently on. How can this be? All other lunar modules either burnt up in Earth’s atmosphere or were purposefully crashed into the moon. Snoopy was given a reprieve and boosted into a heliocentric orbit around the sun, where he remains to this day; the only abandoned spacecraft that the hand of man once flew still in existence out in the final frontier.

Now he is the subject of a search by schoolchildren from across the UK and astronomers worldwide. NASA lost track of Snoopy shortly after he was abandoned, but the conviction that this object no larger than a van can be found in the billions upon billions of square miles of open space in our Solar System is strong with some.

However Paul Roche, director of the Faulkes Telescope Project in Glamorgan leading the hunt, admits the task is a tough one:

“To say it’s like finding a needle in a haystack is doing a disservice to the haystacks.”

“Whilst there are records of the last known movements and orbital information for Snoopy, this is going back over forty years. The module has been affected by the gravity of the Sun, Earth and moon for all that time, then you have all sorts of other factors that mean we need to search a very big chunk of sky for this thing.”

Paul Roche, director of the Faulkes Telescope Project in Glamorgan, is at the forefront of the search for America's space nomad.

Paul Roche, director of the Faulkes Telescope Project in Glamorgan (here with the Princess Royal) is at the forefront of the search for America’s space nomad.

So why bother at all? Snoopy is a long-derelict relic of a bygone age, packed with obsolete technology including a computer capable of storing just 16 Bits of memory. Roche and colleague Sarah Roberts who heads up the liaison with schools across the country believe Snoopy has the ability to engage and inspire a whole new generation of explorers.

Roberts says:

“There will be a huge search field to examine, so this is not something which will happen overnight. It could take weeks, months, years – or we may possibly never find it.”

“But we’re going to try, and as a bonus, the areas we’ll be searching will hopefully turn up new asteroids, and maybe even some comets, so there will be useful results whether we find Snoopy or not.”

Students participating in the search will have cooperation from NASA themselves, with the US government agency opening up their latest coordinate data to the British children leading the hunt for America’s lost spacecraft. Additionally, consultation has been held with ex-flight controllers who mentored Snoopy’s mission in 1969 and the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

The search for Snoopy was partly inspired by an incident in 2002-2003, when part of the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 12 on the second moon landing in November 1969 was seen by astronomers approaching Earth, after spending over three decades in orbit around the sun. Though it has since disappeared again, Nick Howes, a prolific astronomer and contributor to the ‘Astronomy Now’ magazine, takes heart from the event:

“We know from finding the Apollo 12 S-IVB stage in 2002, which initially was thought to be an asteroid, that they are out there, and are recoverable.”

“So whilst daunting, it’s not completely impossible.”

Paul Roche sums up:

“To paraphrase President Kennedy, we are trying these things ‘not because they are easy but because they are hard.’ This will be a real test for the hardware and the students involved.”

Similar in fact to the test that over forty years ago Snoopy passed, paving the way for mankind’s first footsteps on another world. If ever a machine deserved a place alongside the likes of Columbus and Armstrong, it’s Snoopy, a fitting and lasting tribute in the heavens to the unsung heroes that made our finest hour a reality.

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