Three years after JPL started what’s become the tradition of eating peanuts during launches, NASA developed another peanuts-based tradition. This one centers on Peanuts the cartoon strip rather than the legume, specifically the beagle Snoopy. Since the Apollo program, Snoopy has been a spokesbeagle of humour and safety in America’s space program.
After a fire claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 crew during a routine prelaunch test, NASA had to rebuild its lunar program. For this new effort, the agency wanted a symbol, a Smokey the Bear-type mascot for safety in the reinvigorated Apollo program. The agency approached Charles Schulz, the cartoonist behind the Peanuts comic strip, for permission to use Snoopy. He promptly sketched an image of Snoopy as an astronaut for NASA to use.As a sometimes aviator, Snoopy was a natural choice. Throughout the long-running comic strip, the beagle had frequent fantasies of flying a Sopwith Camel in a dogfight against famed WWI fighter pilot the Red Baron. In all his daydreams, Snoopy refused to accept defeat, even after being shot down and sent to kitchen detail for losing too many aircraft (yes, in his own fantasies). He also had an ‘outside the doghouse’ way of looking at things, a trait NASA wanted its workers to adopt in moving forward with Apollo. A series of Snoopy-in-Space – Astrobeagle – products emerged as part of this campaign.
Schulz’s original sketch became the template for the Silver Snoopy award. It’s a lapel pin, flown in space then presented by an astronaut to workers who demonstrated outstanding performance in contributing to the mission’s safety and success. It’s an incentive for workers, giving them a direct connection with astronauts they wouldn’t normally have any contact with.
The first set of Snoopys flew on Apollo 7 in October 1968. Since then, fewer than one percent of NASA’s workforce has been presented with the award annually; the same percentage of workers have won the award since its introduction. It is one of the highest and most prestigious awards within the space agency and the broader industry.
Snoopy wasn’t just synonymous with safety, he made his way into Apollo missions.
In 1969, Apollo missions started flying with two separate spacecraft simultaneously – the command module (CM) and lunar module (LM). They each needed a call sign. Apollo 10’s lunar module LM was called Snoopy and its CM called Charlie Brown.
The names originated with Gene Cernan, the mission’s LM Pilot. During simulations, he and Commander Tom Stafford started calling John Young, the mission’s CM Pilot, Charlie Brown (the ‘round-headed kid’ who’s Snoopy’s owner in the comic strip). It started as a joke but soon went beyond the simulators. “We called him Charlie Brown in the office,” Cernan said, and figured that if Young’s call sign would be Charlie Brown, his and Stafford’s call sign in the LM would have to be Snoopy to complete the pair. As an added bonus, the names would give the Silver Snoopy award a little pizzazz and exposure, making it a little more meaningful for the workers who earned it.
NASA asked Schulz for permissions to use his two famous characters as call signs for the mission, something the artist considered a highlight of his career. Some of Schulz’s friends brought up the “what ifs” – what if the mission failed and a crew of dead astronauts was forever synonymous with his characters? Schultz replied simply that if the astronauts could risk their lives on the mission, he could risk his characters. Charlie Brown and Snoopy became semi-official mascots for Apollo 10, even though they weren’t included in the official mission logo. People brought Snoopy dolls in to NASA to lay on top of the crew’s simulators.
Apollo 10’s LM is still flying. The crew burned all the LM’s fuel after rendezvousing around the Moon to send it into a wide solar orbit. British astronomer Nick Howes is trying to find it.
Snoopy made an appearance in mission checklists, too. Ernie Reyes was Chief of the Pre-Flight Operations Branch at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston during Apollo. Along with other pre-flight operations workers, Reyes drew little cartoons on the daily schedules to make them more interesting. Including Snoopy, though the Reyes-Snoopy looked a little different than Schulz-Snoopy. Reyes-Snoopy even made it to the moon inside the Apollo 12 wrist checklists.
The communications caps astronauts wore also paid tribute to the astrobeagle – they were known as snoopy caps. The white caps with black earflaps (though some were all brown) incorporated microphones and earphones that allowed astronauts to talk to one another with their helmets and spacesuits on.
As a lasting tribute to Snoopy, the Apollo 17 crew named a crater on the Moon in the beagle’s – and Schulz’s – honour.
Tom Stafford and Michael Cassutt. We Have Capture. Smithsonian. 2002.