How NASA Recruited Snoopy and Drafted Barbie

The space agency has long relied on kid-friendly mascots to make the case for space

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graphic link to special report landing page
graphic link to special report landing  page

In the comic-strip universe of Peanuts, Snoopy beat Neil Armstrong to the moon. It was in March 1969—four months before Armstrong would take his famous small step—that the intrepid astrobeagle and his flying doghouse touched down on the lunar surface. “I beat the Russians…I beat everybody,” Snoopy marveled. “I even beat that stupid cat who lives next door!”

The comic-strip dog had begun a formal partnership with NASA the previous year, when Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, and its distributor United Feature Syndicate, agreed to the use of Snoopy as a semi-official NASA mascot.

Snoopy was already a renowned World War I flying ace—again, within the Peanuts universe. Clad in a leather flying helmet, goggles, and signature red scarf, he sat atop his doghouse, reenacting epic battles with his nemesis, the Red Baron. Just as NASA had turned to real-life fighter pilots for its first cohort of astronauts, the space agency also recruited Snoopy.

Two months after the comic-strip Snoopy’s lunar landing, a second, real-world Snoopy buzzed the surface of the moon, as part of Apollo 10. This mission was essentially a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. The crew was tasked with skimming, or “snooping,” the surface of the moon, so they nicknamed the lunar module “Snoopy.” It logically followed that Apollo 10’s command module was “Charlie Brown.”

On 21 May, as the astronauts settled in for their first night in lunar orbit, Snoopy’s pilot, Eugene Cernan, asked ground control to “watch Snoopy well tonight, and make him sleep good, and we’ll take him out for a walk and let him stretch his legs in the morning.” The next day, Cernan and Tom Stafford descended in Snoopy, stopping some 14,000 meters above the surface.

Since then, Snoopy and NASA have been locked in a mutually beneficial orbit. Schulz, a space enthusiast, ran comic strips about space exploration, and the moon shot in particular, which helped excite popular support for the program. Commercial tie-ins extended well beyond the commemorative plush toy shown at top. Over the years, Snoopy figurines, music boxes, banks, watches, pencil cases, bags, posters, towels, and pins have all promoted a fun and upbeat attitude toward life beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

There’s also a serious side to Snoopy. In the wake of the tragic Apollo 1 fire, which claimed the lives of three astronauts, NASA wanted to promote greater flight safety and awareness. Al Chop, director of public affairs for the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center), suggested using Snoopy as a symbol for safety, and Schulz agreed. 

NASA created the Silver Snoopy Award to honor ground crew who have contributed to flight safety and mission success. The recipient’s prize? A silver Snoopy lapel pin, designed by Schulz and presented by an astronaut, in appreciation for the person’s efforts to preserve astronauts’ lives.

Snoopy was by no means the only popularizer of the U.S. space program. Over the years, there have been GI Joe astronauts, LEGO astronauts, and Hello Kitty astronauts. Not all of these came with the NASA stamp of approval, but even unofficially they served as tiny ambassadors for space.

Of all the astronautical dolls, I'm most intrigued by Astronaut Barbie, of which there have been numerous incarnations over the years. The first was Miss Astronaut Barbie, who debuted in 1965—13 years before women were accepted into NASA’s astronaut classes and 18 years before Sally Ride flew in space.

Miss Astronaut Barbie might have been ahead of her time, but she was also a reflection of that era’s pioneering women. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go to space on 16 June 1963, when she completed a solo mission aboard Vostok 6. Meanwhile, American women were training for space as early as 1960, through the privately funded Women in Space program. The Mercury 13 endured the same battery of tests that NASA used to train the all-male astronaut corps and were celebrated in the press, but none of them ever went to space.

In 2009, Mattel reissued Miss Astronaut of 1965 as part of the celebration of Barbie’s 50th anniversary. “Yes, she was a rocket scientist,” the packaging declares, “taking us to new fashion heights, while firmly placing her stilettos on the moon.” For the record, Miss Astronaut Barbie wore zippered boots, not high heels.

Other Barbies chose careers in space exploration and always with a flair for fashion. A 1985 Astronaut Barbie modeled a hot pink jumpsuit, with matching miniskirt for attending press conferences. Space Camp Barbie, produced through a partnership between Mattel and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., wore a blue flight suit, although a later version sported white and pink. An Apollo 11 commemorative Barbie rocked a red- and silver-trimmed jumpsuit and silver boots and came with a Barbie flag, backpack, and three glow-in-the-dark moon rocks. (Scientific accuracy has never been Mattel’s strong suit, at least where Barbie is concerned.) And in 2013, Mattel collaborated with NASA to create Mars Explorer Barbie, to mark the first anniversary of the rover Curiosity.

More recently, Mattel has extended the Barbie brand to promote real-life role models for girls. In 2018, as part of its Inspiring Women series, the toymaker debuted the Katherine Johnson doll, which pays homage to the African-American mathematician who calculated the trajectory for NASA’s first crewed spaceflight. Needless to say, this Barbie is also clad in pink, with era-appropriate cat-eye glasses, a double strand of pearls, and a NASA employee ID tag.

Commemorative dolls and stuffed animals may be playthings designed to tug at our consumerist heartstrings. But let’s suspend the cynicism for a minute and imagine what goes on in the mind of a young girl or boy who plays with a doll and dreams of the future. Maybe we’re seeing a recruit for the next generation of astronauts, scientists, and engineers.

An abridged version of this article appears in the July 2019 print issue as “The Beagle Has Landed.”

Part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

About the Author

Allison Marsh is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the university’s Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society.

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