In May of 1969, Apollo 10 lifted off for a rendezvous with the Moon. It was the dress rehearsal mission for the first lunar surface landing mission, and the crew came within 50,000 feet of the Moon’s surface. While the history books name a three man crew of Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan, the payload that was lifted by a Saturn V rocket on that Sunday afternoon, carried a total of five crewmates. In addition to Stafford, Young and Cernan, many of the general public would be amazed to learn that “Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy” were also along for the ride to the Moon.
The story behind this unique five person Apollo lunar crew is a culmination of tragedy, triumph, humor and a desire to bring the message of Apollo’s epic lunar journeys to the American Public. Started as a response to the tragedy of Apollo 1, the wildly popular comic strip character of Snoopy would become the mascot and ultimately the symbol for safety at NASA and earn his own flight to the Moon.
In 1967, NASA was responding to the crisis caused by the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts on the pad at Cape Canaveral. The Manned Spaceflight Awareness program or the safety program for all manned spaceflight was expanded NASA wide to bring safety and work excellence back into the NASA lexicon. It was during that time that NASA requested the services of a plucky World War I ace straight from the imagination of a cartoonist named Charles Schulz and a comic strip named “Peanuts.” NASA needed a mascot for the program and that dashing pilot, “Snoopy,” was selected for the job and the rest is history.
By 1969, the world was at the edge of it’s collective seat leading up to the first lunar landing with Apollo 11 in July. The successes of Apollo 7, Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 had the Apollo Program back on it’s feet and meant that the United States was destined to land on the Moon. All that remained was just one more mission to test the lunar module (or LM) in lunar orbit. Apollo 10 would be that flight. The first landing depended on the successful testing of the lunar module in lunar orbit right up to the final decent to the surface.
The mission would also be the first time that two separate, manned spacecraft would be orbiting the Moon. The Command Module or “CM” and the Lunar Module “LM” would need a code name or “Call Sign” in order to identify each spacecraft will they flew separately in lunar orbit. The Apollo 10 crew decided on the nicknames “Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy.” The origin of those call signs appears to have derived from a nickname given to John Young by his crewmates. During the intense training for their flight, Gene Cernan started to use the nickname “Charlie Brown” for John Young. John was the pilot in charge of the command module. “Charlie Brown” was an easy choice for the command module call sign. “Snoopy” would come to represent the maneuverable LM, which would fly down among the mountains of the Moon. The names represented both crew nicknames as well as honored the safety program established by NASA.
Even as America was progressing to the Moon, NASA was also locked in a struggle to bring their message to the American public. One of those struggles was the astronaut’s use of a modified television camera to broadcast directly to the American people. A hard fought battle between the media, the NASA Public Relations Division, the heads of the Manned Spaceflight Division and the astronauts was waged to design, build and use a television camera during each mission. There was a need for the astronauts to bring the public with them on these explorations of another world. Eventually, NASA, the Media and the astronauts agreed with the need to broadcast to Earth the news of their accomplishments.
B&W cameras were built and used by astronauts on early Apollo missions in Space. Color television was sweeping the nation with more and more Americans owning a color television. As the date of Apollo 10’s flight grew closer, Tom Stafford urged the designers at Westinghouse to build a color TV camera for the flight. Westinghouse came through with a color camera with a monitor and two lenses that weight less than nine pounds.
Within hours after the launch of Apollo 10 on May 18, 1969, all these disparate facts came into focus as the crew broadcast the first color images of the Earth, themselves and their spacecraft to humans of Earth. Although the astronauts were not trained to work in live TV, this crew innately knew that they had to provide some form of entertainment that helped describe everyday life in Space. To that end, they brought props as visual aids along on the mission.
Those props included the “other two crew members.”
“Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy” were brought along as mascots for the flight in the form of two separate paintings on brightly colored green and red poster board. The entire Apollo X crew told me, during interviews at different times, that they requested a NASA contracted graphic artist at Johnson Space Center (JSC) to paint the caricatures of Charlie Brown in a spacesuit on a green background and Snoopy, in his flying gear, on a piece of red poster board. Not only would there be the first original paintings flown to the Moon, they would also serve the utilitarian purpose as color test cue cards for the color TV broadcasts from the spacecraft.
Charlie Brown and Snoopy were firmly locked into the Space history as “members’ of the Apollo X as well as names of two spacecraft that flew to the Moon. The spacecraft still exist with command module “Charlie Brown” on display at the British Science Museum and ascent stage of the lunar module “Snoopy” still in Space in orbit around the Sun. As separate as the two spacecraft are now, so were the paintings. At the end of the mission, personal items were divided up amongst the astronauts with John Young receiving the painting of Charlie Brown and Gene Cernan being given the painting of Snoopy.
In 2003, I was able to acquire Snoopy from Gene Cernan. The crew signed and inscribed the back of the painting as flown on Apollo 10 as well as noting that the painting was used during the first spaceflight color TV broadcasts. I asked both Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan to add their names to reverse of each painting.
As shown in the photo of the reverse of the Charlie Brown painting. Tom not only signed his name, but wrote an inscription about his involvement in placing the first color TV camera aboard Apollo 10. Gene added an inscription alluding to the five members of the Apollo 10 crew. John noted that the painting flew about the spacecraft.
Snoopy has continued to do some traveling having spent time on display at the Charles Schulz Museum in California as part of their “To the Moon: Snoopy Soars with NASA” exhibit.
A closer look at the museum display caption for Snoopy states that Charles Schulz wrote about the paintings and their meaning to him in his biography. It has been said that when asked if he had a concern about the risk to the characters image if Apollo 10 was a failure, his response was that if NASA would risk men on spaceflights, then he would risk his characters too.
In reviewing my files, I found photos of Gene Cernan holding both Charlie Brown and Snoopy taken in 2014 and 2004 respectively. Those dates represent the 35th and 45th anniversaries of the flight of Apollo 10.
On November 27, 2015, ABC broadcast a TV special titled "It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!" The hour long special documented the history of the making of the famous "It's a Charlie Brown Christmas" show that has become an annual Christmas TV event. Kristin Bell, the host of the special noted that Charlie Brown and Snoopy even visited another world. The show then cut to a clip of highlights of the Apollo X flight showing the paintings of Charlie Brown and Snoopy on their way the Moon.
Charlie Brown and Snoopy are reunited again forty-five years after their historic mission to the Moon. The stoic "Everyman" and the precocious puppy from a beloved comic strip who were brought together to assist in telling the world of an epic journey to the Moon.