Today's episode takes a look at one of the most sophisticated pieces of spacecraft ever built - the Lunar Excursion Module or LEM. The LEM was not designed to return to Earth. Instead, the spacecraft would be intentionally abandoned to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere or crash on the moon after transferring the astronauts back to the command module for the return ride home.
Of the nine manned LEMs that flew for NASA, eight did just that. Apollo 13's LEM saved the crew after an explosion disabled their service module and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere as did the one used for testing on Apollo 9. The others flew to the moon, were jettisoned, then were sent crashing into the moon. One of them, however, escaped and is still flying in deep space.
This episode tells the story of the lunar module and this one in particular - Apollo 10's Snoopy that is still intact in space and has been recently found. Can it be the only LEM to come home?
Documentary on the Lunar Orbital Technique Used By Apollo (NASA - Video)
NASA Documentary: Apollo 10 - Tell The World We Have Arrived (Video)
Apollo 10 Jettisons Snoopy And It Runs Away (NASA - Video)
Apollo 13 Says Farewell to the Lunar Module Aquarius (NASA - Video 38:15 into the clip)
Apollo 10's Mission Patch (Smithsonian - JPG)
Snoopy in Space (Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang - NASA Cartoon Video)
Lucy and Linus Theme (The Peanuts Theme by the Jerry Granelli Trio - Video)
Space Oddities Podcast
Title: Lost in Space
Air Date: 05/23/2022
[Theme Music Up & Under]
Welcome to “Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space”. I’m Joe Cuhaj.
Episode 4: Lost and Found
[Music transitions into episode]
One of the most incredible machines every built by humans was the Project Apollo’s lunar excursion module or LEM.
[NASA documentary clip]
The lunar excursion module was not designed to fly in the Earth’s atmosphere. It was designed to take a one-way trip to the moon, never to land on the Earth again.
To the average person, the LEM looked like a giant golden spider with its spindly legs and its gold aluminum foil covering that protected the spacecraft and astronauts from harmful radiation. The walls of the LEM were described as being as thin as aluminum foil that could be easily punctured just by hitting it with your elbow.
The vehicle had two stages. The first or descent stage would power the craft with two astronauts onboard to the lunar surface. Following their walk on the moon or “EVA” (extravehicular activity), the second stage or ascent stage would lift the pair off the moon where they would rendezvous with the third crew member aboard the waiting command module for the return to Earth.
[NASA Documentary on Lunar Module]
And that would be the end of the LEM, left in lunar orbit until it finally crash landed on the moon.
Of the nine lunar modules that were flown during the Apollo program, none returned to Earth. Six of the LEM’s were purposely crashed on the moon. Two other lunar modules came close to , but not being designed to withstand the friction of re-entry caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, they were destined to meet a fiery death and reduced to cinders, if that much.
The first LEM to come closest to home was during the flight of Apollo 9 when the crew tested a lunar module nicknamed, appropriately enough “Spider” in Earth orbit. The test was designed to ensure that all systems and mechanisms on the spacecraft worked perfectly close to home before the next mission that would test the LEM in lunar orbit. Spider met its preordained fate on March 22nd, 1969.
The next came during one of the most gripping tales of survival ever told, a nearly tragic adventure that was shared in real time with the world – the flight of Apollo 13.
[Apollo 13 Explosion communications]
It was a coincidence that on the ominous date of April 13th, 1970, the crew of Apollo 13 - Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise - were quite relaxed as they sailed through space to their rendezvous with the moon and the third US lunar landing when oxygen tank #2 exploded
[NASA orders Apollo 13 crew to move to CM ]
The explosion in the spacecraft’s service module left the command module virtually inoperable with power draining rapidly and precious oxygen venting into space at an alarming rate. NASA gave the order to abandon ship.
To survive, the crew was ordered to move into the lunar module Aquarius and power down the nearly lifeless command module.
It was a tense, nail biting four days until Aquarius brought the crew close enough to Earth so that they could splashdown safely in the Pacific.
After performing admirably and saving the lives of the astronauts, the LEM was jettisoned, left to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
[Apollo 13 Farewell to Aquarius]
There is one LEM, however, that is still out there. The ascent stage still intact, floating serenely and silently through the darkness of space in a wide orbit around the sun – Apollo 10’s Snoopy.
[Apollo 10 ‘Tell the world we have arrived’]
Apollo 10 would follow up on the tests of the LEM that were conducted by Apollo 9 only a few months earlier, only this time, the tests would be in lunar orbit.
With John Young in the command module Charlie Brown, astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan entered Snoopy, so named for the famous Charles Schultz cartoon and the black-and-white communications caps the astronauts wore that were nicknamed “Snoopy caps”, undocked, and began the tests coming within 9 miles of the lunar surface.
The test would pave the way for the first manned lunar landing in July by Apollo 11.
Once the test was complete and the astronauts returned to the command module, Snoopy was jettisoned…
[Apollo 10 Jettison comms]
Instead of crashing into the moon like the remaining LEMs would do, Snoopy would enter a perpetual orbit around the sun.
[Apollo 10: [Snoopy] Shot Off clip]
Fast forward to 2011 when a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, Nick Howes and a team of fellow astronomers, began a search – a search for Apollo 10’s Snoopy.
Howes told the press that the team would scan an area of space some 135 million kilometers or nearly 84 million miles. He calculated the odds of finding Snoopy were 250 million to one, a much larger haystack to search for that needle in.
Using the Faulkes North Telescope in Hawaii, Howes and his team began the search. Over the years they have identified many objects including near-Earth asteroids, the spent stages of other rockets that sent satellites and rovers to the moon and beyond, then in 2019, an announcement was made.
[Peanuts Theme under]
Howes had discovered an object that was 35 million miles away. It on the same orbital plane that the discarded lunar module would be flying. It was travelling very slowly relative to the Earth’s speed unlike an asteroid. The brightness showed the size to be just right. And there were other signs that pointed to this being the object they were looking for.
The icing on the cake came after comparing their data with those of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California who were also attempting to calculate Snoopy’s path around the sun.
The announcement concluded that the astronomers were 98 % certain that the object – named 2018 AV2 – was in fact Apollo 10’s lunar module, Snoopy.
When Howes decided to search for the lost LEM, people asked, “what’s the point?” His answer was to the point saying that in terms of space archeology, it’s very interesting. It’s the only one that’s actually flown and survives.
Howes said that the only way we can be sure it is Snoopy is to send a satellite, maybe a Cube Sat aboard the new Space Launch System, to fly to the LEM and check it out. And maybe, just maybe, by the time it makes its next closest approach to Earth at 4 million miles in 2037, we’ll have a rocket big enough to bring the little LEM that could back home.
As Snoopy’s pilot Gene Cernan said, “if you could bring it back, imagine the line at the Smithsonian.”
[Peanuts Theme continues]
I’m Joe Cuhaj and thank you for joining me for this episode of Space Oddities. You can read more fascinating, offbeat, and obscure space tales like these in my new book, aptly titled Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space, available at your favorite online or hometown bookstore.
If you liked this episode then tell a friend and be sure to like us on Facebook - visit facebook.com/SpaceOddityBook or drop me a line from my website, joe-cuhaj.com (that’s spelled CUHAJ). You can also learn more about my other books and upcoming appearances.
Special thanks this week to the NASA history office for the clips heard in today’s episode.
Our theme music is called “Inspired” courtesy of BenSounds.Com. We’ll see you next time with more Space Oddities.
[Peanuts Theme out cold]