When it comes to the quest for artifacts from the Space Race of the 1960s, few items are more sought after than flown hardware. Oh sure, there have been stories of small samples of the 382 kg of moon rocks and dust that were returned at the cost of something like $25 billion making it into the hands of private collectors, and chunks of the moon may be the ultimate collector’s item, but really, at the end of the day it’s just rock and dust. The serious space junkie wants hardware – the actual pieces of human engineering that helped bring an epic adventure to fruition, and the closer to the moon the artifact got, the more desirable it is.
Sadly, of the 3,000,000 kg launch weight of a Saturn V rocket, only the 5,600 kg command module ever returned to Earth intact. The rest was left along the way, mostly either burned up in the atmosphere or left on the surface of the Moon. While some of these artifacts are recoverable – Jeff Bezos himself devoted a portion of his sizable fortune to salvage one of the 65 F1 engines that were deposited into the Atlantic ocean – those left on the Moon are, for now, unrecoverable, and in most cases they are twisted heaps of wreckage that was intentionally crashed into the lunar surface.
But at least one artifact escaped this ignominious fate, silently orbiting the sun for the last 50 years. This lonely outpost of the space program, the ascent stage from the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, appears to have been located by a team of amateur astronomers, and if indeed the spacecraft, dubbed “Snoopy” by its crew, is still out there, it raises the intriguing possibility of scoring the ultimate Apollo artifact by recovering it and bringing it back home.
For as well engineered as the entire Apollo program was, it made some serious compromises to get to the Moon within the time allotted by President Kennedy’s 1961 throwdown speech. With an essentially bottomless pit of money available, it was far quicker to design Apollo as a series of disposable modules rather than returnable, reusable spacecraft. Therefore, everything about Apollo traded money for speed of development, with everything built to do exactly one job, to do it well, and then, for the most part, go away.
This design philosophy was clear from the arrangement of the Lunar Module, or LM. Deployed from storage underneath the Command-Service Module (CSM) and docked to it, the ungainly assembly made the translunar voyage, whereupon the LM descended to the surface, braked and maneuvered by the engine in the lower descent stage. When it was time to go home, the two astronauts launched the upper ascent stage back into lunar orbit, docked with the CSM, and jettisoned the now useless ascent stage, which would orbit the Moon for a bit before crashing into it.
That was the script for all the manned landings. But Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the eventual landing of Apollo 11, was different. Its mission was to further characterize lunar gravitation so that the guidance systems could be tightly calibrated for Apollo 11, as well as to give the entire ground control team a chance to practice for the big show. To that end, astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan descended in the LM “Snoopy” to within 14 km of the lunar surface, tantalizingly close and yet so far before jettisoning the lower descent stage and returning to the Command Module “Charlie Brown”, piloted by John Young, for the ride home.
Going Off Script
Rather than becoming twisted wreckage on the surface like the descent stage, the remaining fuel in Snoopy’s ascent stage was used to blast it out of lunar orbit. It’s not clear why this was done from any of the available mission documents, but we can make a few guesses. First, missions from Apollo 11 onward left seismometers on the lunar surface, and having something massive crash into the surface at a known time and location was a perfect way to validate the instruments. Since Cernan and Stafford never touched down in Snoopy, they never placed those instruments, so crashing the machine into the Moon was pointless.
Furthermore, Snoopy came back to rendezvous with Charlie Brown with much more propellant on board than an ascent stage that had actually reached the surface would. Perhaps mission planners were worried about contaminating potential future landing sites with the hypergolic witch’s brew Snoopy carried in its tanks. Whatever the reason, Snoopy was put into a heliocentric orbit which NASA tracked for a while, but only until it was clear that it was no longer a threat to the astronauts as they returned home. Snoopy’s long, lonely time in space had begun.
Snoopy remained lost for most of the next 50 years. But astronomers love a challenge, and the thought of finding a 4-meter wide piece of history after half a century proved irresistible. Nick Howes, an amateur astronomer and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, set out to find Snoopy. He and a team of astronomers, using telescopes in Hawaii, Australia, and Arizona, along with a few terabytes of radar data, began the search in 2011.
Working backward from the May 1969 start of Snoopy’s long journey, they found enough clues in the data to make a list of a number of near-Earth objects with the potential to be Snoopy. But we have made quite a mess up there. Added to the pile of natural objects in near-Earth orbit, narrowing down that list took some doing. One such object, WT1190F, was initially thought to be Snoopy, but it was determined to be the Star 37 rocket motor used for translunar injection of the Lunar Prospector mission in 1998. The orbit of WT1190F eventually crossed Earth’s orbit in 2015, and it ended up burning up over the Indian Ocean.
One object stood out from the data, though. Dubbed 2018AV2, the object has an orbital period of 382 days, making it only slightly slower than Earth and currently following it. It’s pretty much on the same orbital plane as Earth, too, a good indication that it’s an artificial object. Its apparent brightness corresponds to what one would expect from a lunar ascent module, so all signs point to it being Snoopy. However, the object is currently over a third of an astronomical unit, or 55,000,000 km, away from Earth – too far to be 100% sure. More observations, like small perturbations in its orbit that wouldn’t happen for natural objects, or spectrographic analysis to see if its paint matches NASA records, are needed to make sure it’s Snoopy.
The next time AV2 gets close to Earth is in July 2037, almost 68 years since Snoopy was abandoned in space. It will only be 6,400,000 km away, close enough to possibly mount a recovery mission. That gives us 18 years to tighten up the data, possibly by sending a small satellite to intercept it and perhaps snap a picture. If it is Snoopy, it’s a one-of-a-kind artifact and it may just be feasible to send a salvage mission to retrieve it. It would be hideously expensive, but something like that is practically priceless in terms of historical value, and it may well prove as irresistible to some future treasure hunter as it did to Nick Howes and the others to locate it in the first place.