This weekend while I was working on some painting around the house, my daughter raced in with the excitement of a fresh discovery.
My mother-in-law lives with us and likes to have McDonald’s Happy Meals for lunch many days. She’ll always buy extra toys for all the grandkids and she keeps them in a bin in her room as a reward. So in her most recent trip to this treasure box, she had come across something she thought her dad would like: Snoopy books!
These fun little activity books reminded me of the long history of Snoopy and NASA that dates back to the earliest days of the Apollo program. For today’s Weekly Peanuts, let’s look back at that story to understand the important role that Schulz and Snoopy played then and now.
Through the late 1950s, American anxieties were high about the possibility that the Soviets might beat us to take dominance over space surveillance, defense, and possibly even warfare if we did not act quickly. The launch of the floating radio beacon Sputnik in fall 1957 sparked a space race that absorbed billions and billions of dollars in the last half of the twentieth century.
Early results were not always promising. In December 1957, the Eisenhower administration sought to reassure Americans that the United States was well-equipped to compete with Khrushchev’s Russian rockets by bumping up the launch of the Navy’s own satellite. The Vanguard rocket lifted an entire 4 feet off of the launchpad before losing thrust and falling in a fiery explosion.
As you can imagine, the televised debacle had quite the opposite of Eisenhower’s desired effect on American viewers.
Many times, the race to first even came at the expense of some America’s brightest and bravest. In January 1967, a routine launchpad test of cockpit systems went tragically wrong when a spark ignited the pure oxygen within the capsule, burning the three crew members alive. Subsequent congressional investigations found chronic issues of mismanagement, schedule delays, and safety omissions that threatened the future of the program itself.
Like many NASA officials in 1967, Director of Public Affairs, Al Chop, spent the year searching for solutions to a rapidly declining problem. Public confidence was low and morale at NASA’s Manned Flight Center in Houston was lower. While Chop’s expertise did not give him the technical skills needed to fix the mechanical flaws that had led to the Apollo 1 disaster, he did believe his office had an important role to play in turning things around. He believed that NASA needed a mascot. Something like Smokey the Bear, that could inspire positivity, encouragement, and a renewed focus on the safety of the mission.
This is where Snoopy entered the story.
Chop had been a daily Peanuts reader for years. He loved the adventuresomeness and creativity of the cartoon beagle who had taken America by storm over the 1960s. In 1967, Chop phoned United Feature Syndicate (UFS) in New York to request permission for NASA to use Snoopy for their new safety program. Jim Hennessey, UFS’s business manager and Schulz’s friend, politely declined.
Chop would not take no for an answer, though. He booked a flight from Houston to New York City to make his request in person. Once again, Hennessey declined. This time, however, Chop sweetened the deal. If UFS would grant permission to use Snoopy in their renewed internal safety program, he would promise that Snoopy would prominently fly on the Apollo rocket.
That offer was too much to pass up and Hennessey quickly telephoned Schulz in California. With the artist’s approval, Hennessey sealed the deal the old fashioned way: with a handshake.
Before long, Schulz’s studio was full of models and authentic astronaut gear as the cartoonist went to work designing a satisfactory astronaut Snoopy. Chop could not have been more happy with the results. “They [the astronauts] just loved Snoopy,” he recalled. Alan Shepard, first American to travel into space, was a particular fan of the new mascot.
But he was not the only one. So popular was the new mascot that when the crew of Apollo 10, the mission that would scout the landing site for Apollo 11 and first attempt the redocking of the lunar module to the command module, they elected to name their ship after the lovable dog and his owner.
Lunar module (LM)Snoopy and command module (CSM)Charlie Brown successfully launched from Houston on May 18, 1969. On that voyage, LM Snoopy came within 9 nautical miles of the lunar surface and the pair orbited the moon 31 times. And during the flight, Captain Eugene A. Cernan kept Al Chop’s promise: he held up a drawing of Snoopy for all the world to see in a global television broadcast that was estimated to have reach over one billion viewers. The crew safely returned home after about a week in flight, mission accomplished.
But, of course, before the NASA could reach the moon, Snoopy had already been there, as documented in today’s Weekly Peanuts strip. The first beagle on the moon. A title the pup and his creator wore with great honor all the rest of their years.
Today, Snoopy has a tall order again as he tries to do the unthinkable: get Americans interested space exploration again. Initiatives like the McDonald’s books above and Apple TV’s latest Peanuts animated series are NASA’s latest attempt to regain the trust of the American public. But in a time of intense introspection in the United States, we have to wonder if Snoopy will be enough to rekindle our interest in the moon, a place no American has visited in over 50 years.