Saturday, August 20, 2011

The NASA Silver Snoopy

Crew of Space Shuttle Mission STS-135

10 years ago I began my work career and around that same time I came across a sterling silver lapel pin of Snoopy in an astronaut suit.  I pinned it to my lanyard and wore it to work for about 3 months, until one day a coworker nearly fell out of their chair exclaiming “Is that a Silver Snoopy??!?”  I’m sure my response was something in the neighborhood of “Well, it’s Snoopy and it’s silver…”  He explained that the Silver Snoopy is a very prestigious award given by the Astronauts to individuals for outstanding achievements in flight safety and mission success.  Each pin is flown on a space mission and then awarded by an astronaut to the recipient.  I removed the pin at once because I did not earn this award, it was not mine.  I contacted the antique store where I bought it for $1 to see if I could trace it back to its origin.  They told me it was most likely purchased as part of an estate sale.  So then I turned to NASA.  I was able to track down the coordinator of the Silver Snoopy award at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).  Unfortunately, she told me that because the pins are not stamped with serial numbers there is no way to identify the original owner with any certainty.  She told me that by all rights, the pin belonged to me now.

I tucked the pin away in a Tiffany’s box and hid it in a drawer.

I guess I never really realized how much the space program meant to me.  At one point in my life I had planned to join the Air Force and pursue an Astronaut position.  Other responsibilities prevented me from going down that path.  A few years later, in 2005 I was at Disney World and it just so happened that a shuttle launch was scheduled for that week.   I went to the Polynesian resort beach and among 50 or so other people watched the shuttle go up.  It was a streak of light over the Contemporary!  As I stood there tears were streaming down my face.  I was so proud and it felt like it was a part of home, something that we should all take a little ownership in.  Right then and there I vowed that if I ever had another opportunity to see one launch, I would be as close as they would legally allow me to be!

10 years past since I found Snoopy and we reached the end of the Shuttle era.

I tried to make it to a couple of the last launches but things never worked out.  After the launch of the STS-135, the last shuttle mission, a mass email was sent out to all of the employees of my organization.  I believe I must have been the only one to read it as no one else seems to know about it.   It was from a gentleman named Jon and included the story of the last shuttle launch and his experience.  It turns out that Jon had been accepted into the test pilot school at Edwards Air force base and was in the 92A class of 1992.  Of the 17 individuals in this class, 5 of them were selected as astronaut candidates, and 4 of them went on to fly a total of 11 missions.  Jon kept in contact with each of them (Walheim, Bloomfield, Carey, and Sturckow) and collected their mission patches for each flight.  He plans to put them all together in a display including autographed pictures of each astronaut and then donate the display to the Test Pilot School in honor of their class.  Before the last shuttle launched, Jon contacted Rex Walheim and asked if he would be willing to do him a favor!  He thought it would be cool if his last patch (for the STS-135) could be flown on the shuttle.  Rex told him to overnight it to him and he would see what he could do.

A few weeks later, after the shuttle’s successful return, he received an email from Rex including a photo!  Not only did Rex manage to get it on board but he sent a picture to prove it!  The picture shows the patch floating in front of the window with the International Space Station and Earth seen in the background. 

When I read this story, I remembered the pin that I had found 10 years earlier and had an idea.

I contacted Jon and told him that I would like to donate my Silver Snoopy to his display.  He was shocked and honored that I was willing to part with it but I explained that it was never rightfully mine.  My goal from the beginning was to find a proper home for this Snoopy and I felt like this was the best place for it!

Through further research, we were able to confirm that this Silver Snoopy flew on either Apollo 7 or 8.  We are currently in contact with the NASA Silver Snoopy representative who is helping to verify the list of recipients from Marshall Space Flight Center from 1968-1969.  Once we have a confirmed list I plan to contact the Huntsville times to request their assistance in researching the obituaries from the time period around when I found the pin.  We assume that the individual that received this award passed away and their belongings were sold in an estate sale which led to the pin being found in the antique store.  We are hoping that we can narrow the possibilities down to our best guess so that the final display will read something to the effect of “Silver Snoopy pin… thought to have flown on XX mission and awarded by XX astronaut, in honor of all contributors to space exploration.”  We understand that we will never know, with any certainty, who the original owner was but a “best guess” may provide closure to this 10 year adventure! 

Jon met with the crew of the STS-135 last week and shared our story with them.  They passed the Silver Snoopy around and appreciated the wonder that this was one of the first items to ever fly in space and until a new mission is assigned, they (the crew) were one of the last to fly in space. 

I may have not had the opportunity to chase after my childhood dream of being an astronaut but it is an incredible thrill that, because of this serendipitous event, they know my name.

Yesterday I received a package in the mail that caused my heart to skip a beat and I sat down in my driveway shaking as I opened it.  Astronaut Rex Walheim had sent me a package.  Inside was included a photo of the STS-135 crew (signed by each of them), a photo of Rex himself (signed with a thank you), an STS-135 mission patch, and a letter from Rex expressing his gratitude for my contribution.  Again, tears were streaming down my face. 

I cannot explain why the space program conjures up such deep emotions for me.  But what I can say is that I am so proud of what our country has accomplished in the last 50 years in the fields of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.  I have hope that NASA will be given a new manned flight mission soon that will spark the imagination of this country and my children’s children will aspire to be astronauts as so many of us once did.  In the words of Jon, “with all the bad stuff going on around us, like the economy, the war, people losing their homes and possibly even their jobs…” if his story and mine “…provides even one person with a sense of hope and pride that our country has, can, and will continue to do great things, then they most certainly did serve a purpose.”

Some businesses frown upon mass emails but Jon’s is a good example of one that was appropriate and even necessary to give the Huntsville space community a little hope for the future and above all else an enormous THANK YOU to everyone who has played a part in Huntsville’s history in space.

"Eyes on the Stars"