The Lost Ghost Ships of the Apollo Program

Apollo 11 on pad
Apollo 11 awaits launch. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Readers of my blog know that most of my posts are about ghost folklore of the American South. But since July 21st marks the 46th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 1969, I decided to tell a different ghost story, one that will bring to light an often forgotten aspect of mankind’s journey to the Moon. It’s time to tell the story of the lost ghost ships of the Apollo Moon Program.

Where are they now?

Let’s start with the most interesting ghost ship of them all – the ascent stage of the Lunar Module for Apollo 10, nicknamed “Snoopy” by the astronauts that flew it very close to the surface of the Moon. Launched on May 18, 1969, Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the historic Apollo 11 mission and did everything Apollo 11 did with the exception of actually landing on the surface of the Moon.

To test the capabilities of the Lunar Module, astronauts piloted Snoopy towards the surface of the moon. They then jettisoned the lower half of the craft, known as the “descent stage”, before returning to the orbiting Command Module in upper portion, or “ascent stage”, of Snoopy. And just in case you’re wondering, the Command Module was nicknamed – you guessed it – Charlie Brown. The Apollo astronauts not only had guts, they also apparently had a sense of humor.

A lunar module ascent stage flying in space. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Shortly after separation, the descent stage of Snoopy crashed into the surface of the Moon. But NASA had a different fate planned for Snoopy’s ascent stage.

Once the astronauts docked with the Command Module for their return to Earth, the ascent stage of Snoopy was jettisoned into space into what is known as a “heliocentric orbit”, which means it was sent into orbit around the Sun. And there it remains to this day, an empty ghost ship floating aimlessly through the cold environs of space. Unlike all of the other Lunar Modules flown in space during the Apollo program, Snoopy remains the lone survivor.

The next most interesting ghost ship of the Apollo Moon Program is an asteroid named J002E3. Except it’s no ordinary asteroid. Discovered in 2002, it was first thought to be an asteroid until the reflected light from it was analyzed with a spectrometer by an amateur astronomer. The results showed wavelengths consistent with light reflected from black and white paint. There are no known natural asteroids sporting paint jobs of any color, but there was lots of black and white paint used on the Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts into space.

Booster
A Saturn V booster stage identical to the one used in Apollo 12. Photo courtesy of NASA.

It was later concluded that asteroid J002E3 was not a natural asteroid at all, but rather the booster stage from Apollo 12. NASA routinely crashed the booster stages from the other Apollo missions into the Moon to study the seismic readings on instruments left on the surface by the astronauts. But the Apollo 12 booster was not crashed into the Moon. Instead, it left the vicinity of the Earth in 1971 and returned in 2003 only to leave again. Best estimates show it making another pass at the Earth sometime around 2040.

A lonely Lunar Module descent stage on the Moon. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The rest of the ghost ships from the Apollo program are on the surface of the Moon. All six descent stages remain on the surface and have been photographed by a satellite orbiting the Moon known as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

And last but not least are the Moonbuggies of the last three Apollo missions. They currently sit riderless on the surface of the moon frozen in time just as the astronauts left them in the early 1970’s.

The Lunar Rover from Apollo 17. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Perhaps if NASA ever figures out how to get back to the Moon, something that as of right now is sadly beyond its capabilities, they will include a set of jumper cables in the gear of the astronauts so they can take the Moonbuggies for another ride.

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