It’s always a good idea to do a real dry run before doing something big. Like, you’re not going to try and bust out your full interpretive-dance karaoke of Radar Love without trying it out in front of the mirror first, right? Of course not. The same was true for NASA and the Apollo moon landings. The Apollo 10 mission did almost everything the actual Apollo 11 lunar landing did—except land on the moon. The lunar lander, named Snoopy after the noted cartoon beagle, was jettisoned into space after the mission and thought lost, but now a team of astronomers think they’ve found it.
It’s actually the ascent module of the lunar lander that seems to have been finally found. You see, Apollo 10 was a sort of dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, so they did and used everything that would be used on the actual planned lunar landing mission.
The command module, named Charlie Brown, undocked with Snoopy, the lunar lander, which descended to a maddeningly-close 8 or so miles off the surface of the moon. After that, they had to simulate the launch of the lunar module ascent module (the pressurized crew area on top of the landing legs) so it detached and launched to rendezvous with the command module, where the two astronauts inside could rejoin the one astronaut waiting for them in the command module.
After that, the now-empty Snoopy lunar ascent module was jettisoned into a heliocentric (you know, around the sun, just like us) orbit. All other Apollo lunar module ascent stages were either deliberately crashed into the moon or allowed to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, making the Apollo 10 module the only surviving actually-used Apollo lunar ascent module, and even the only once-manned, now-empty American spacecraft left in space.
So, as you can imagine, Snoopy there has a lot of historic value, and finding it would be a big deal—especially if someone figured out a way to safely retrieve it.
The search for Snoopy, which has been going on since 2011, is led by Nick Howes, a fellow at the Royal Astronomical Society, and he’s quick to point out that they’re not 100 percent certain they’ve found it:
The object that Nick and his team are 98 to 99 percent sure is the module won’t be coming close enough to Earth to fully confirm for another 18 years, and while Nick has suggested that maybe Elon Musk could send a Dragon capsule to go retrieve it, he does acknowledge that doing so wouldn’t really be for any hard scientific reasons:
Finding Snoopy was incredibly difficult; it’s relatively tiny, and has been in orbit for 50 years. The odds of finding the spacecraft were computed at being around 235 million to one. And yet, somehow, they think they’ve done it.
Another interesting tidbit about the Apollo 10 mission: while the reason is contested by various sources, the landing module was sent with a smaller amount of fuel than the actual Apollo 11 lunar lander.
That contested reason for this is that NASA didn’t want any hot shot astronauts getting just a few miles from the moon and thinking, screw it, let’s just land!
So, to ensure that wouldn’t happen, they didn’t give enough fuel to get back off the moon.
Or so the story goes; while I love that reason, it seems that there actually would have been enough fuel, just with less of a safety reserve, and that was mostly because the Apollo 10 lunar module was still a bit heavier than the target goal for the Apollo 11 one.
Even if it didn’t land on the moon, Apollo 10 set some big records: fastest manned flight (24,790 MPH, which is 0.0037 percent of lightspeed), and the furthest humans have been from Earth, 254,110 miles.
I’ll update in 18 years to see if these astronomers were right, and I’ll tweet to Elon, or the robotic body Elon’s brain is inhabiting, to go up there and get it.