posted 04-29-2014 01:36 AM
What follows is, to my best knowledge and belief, an accurate description of a bizarre event from 1970 that saw an Apollo boilerplate capsule fall into the hands of the Russians.
In preparing this account I must thank two 'old timers' from the former Landing and Recovery Division (LRD) of NASA whose patience with my repeated queries is gratefully acknowledged; former crew members of the USCG Southwind; crew members of various vessels involved with Apollo recoveries and serving members of the US military. All have been unstinting in their help. A failure to resolve exactly what happened over forty years ago is entirely due to my shortcomings, not theirs.
Apollo boilerplate capsule designated BP-1227 was one of a series of about thirty capsules that were designed to simulate the weight and external characteristics of the Apollo Command Module. They were used primarily to train recovery crews of both Navy and ARRS (Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron) units in flotation collar installation and recovery procedures in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans There were some exceptions to this though. In addition to these roles, Boilerplate BP-1202 was used at the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) by an ARRS unit and KSC fire-fighters to train for launch site recovery, while BP-1224 was used in a Component Level Flammability Test Program to test for design decisions on selection and application of non-metallic materials following the Apollo 1 accident.
The 1200 series of boilerplates were designed 'in house' and probably started life on the drawing board of Hardie Barr. He was responsible for the early examples, then known as LRD BPs. His particular pride was BP-1102/1102A, a capsule used by the astronauts for water egress training. The series was manufactured by a firm called Ace Fabrications in Clute, Texas. They were made of low-carbon steel, sand blasted and coated with 'Dimetcote', an inorganic zinc primer used for corrosion control, before they were painted. A few were made in the Block 1 configuration, these being converted to Block 2 at a later date. BP-1227 was most likely made sometime about 1967.
Ace Fabrications no longer exists as it went out of business in the early 1990's. It was owned and run by the Self family. Regrettably, when it closed the company records were destroyed. It has to be pointed out that there is, nor was, any connection with a firm of a similar name that currently operates in the Houston area.
Upon completion, BP-1227 was handed over to the Atlantic Recovery Force CTF-140 at the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia. Once allocated to this unit the boilerplate came completely under their control and it was CTF-140 that would organise and collaborate with other units needing a boilerplate to practice recovery techniques for a returning Apollo spacecraft. Despite several searches, where and to whom the capsule was sent remain buried deep within the records of the Port Services Department at the Naval Air Station. It has to be recorded also that though the chief of the design section kept a Rolodex file on the BP-1200 series to track their configuration status, this was lost when the LRD was abolished in 1972.
Apollo boilerplate capsule BP-1227 hit the news media when it was handed back by the Soviets in the early days of September 1970 during a visit by the Coast Guard cutter 'Southwind' to the port of Murmansk. The usual dates for this are given as either 7th or 8th of the month though the private log of one of the 'Southwind's' helicopter pilots, a Stephen Goldhammer, says it was a day earlier. His entry, timed at 18:00 on Sunday 6th September, reads, "We took on board a practice NASA capsule that the Russians had found somewhere. It looked like a dummy Gemini capsule. The Russian TV news said that one of the reasons for coming here was to pick up the capsule...". The helicopter pilot was not the only one confused by just what exactly was to be handed over.
A report in the European Stars and Stripes on 6th September says, "One Embassy spokeman said US officials had viewed the object Friday and could not confirm it was an Apollo program item." There is support for the 6th as the hand-over date from an article in the New York Times dated 4th September that states "...and would turn it over to a United States Coast Guard cutter in the northern port of Murmansk tomorrow."
At the hand-over were three people from the US Embassy in Moscow. These are reported as being William Harben, Franklin Babbit(t) and Richard M. Rodnia, the latter two being a Naval Attaché and a Military Attaché respectively. Efforts by way of FOIA requests to the US Embassy, Moscow and the Department of the Navy to either confirm their presence or the contents of any report they may have submitted have met with no response.
It has to be noted here that the handover of BP-1227 came as something of a surprise to the 'Southwind'. The report in the European Stars and Stripes mentions that the Embassy had announced that the Coast Guard cutter was staying in Murmansk from "...Saturday through Monday" to allow its crew rest and relaxation, adding that it was a goodwill visit and "...nothing more." It goes on to say, "The Soviets did tell us about two weeks ago they had something of ours that had fallen from space and that it was in Murmansk but they apparently decided without telling us to take the occasion of the 'Southwind' visit to give the hardware back." Later, the Embassy added that serial numbers had been sent to Washington for identification and that they would like to put it, "...on this ship which is calling at Murmansk on other business, if it is what it appears to be and if the commanding officer approves."
Some damage was reported by the Soviets though there are discrepancies in what might be considered to be official sources. A report attributed to the CDBMB (the Soviet Central Design Bureau of Machine Building) says its experts found little signs of corrosion but that pieces were missing, notably an optical glass lantern and its associated search light beacon.
This is at odds with a comment made by A.V. Blagov, a senior designer at CDBMB, in Novosti Kosmonavtiki who wrote, "Specialists from TsKBM travelled to Murmansk to look at this 'gift of fate'. In general, it was metal, very well made of thick galvanized iron with no signs of corrosion, a mass dimension mock-up of the Apollo Command Module. Apparently, the production technology was designed for a small series. Unfortunately, we only got a set of search light beacons with an original optical layout of cockpit glass. Everything [else] was very simple... Even the simulated thermal protection was not worth copying. We ourselves would not allow ourselves to build a special series of vehicles for sea trials."
Having received the capsule, the 'Southwind' continued her Arctic cruise. Before sailing on to Thule, Greenland to take part in naval exercises she called in at Portsmouth, UK for what was scheduled as a three day visit. In fact she arrived three days early on 24th September, not departing until the 30th September. Contrary to some reports the boilerplate was not off-loaded here for return to the Royal Navy. Somewhere on this last stage of the voyage the capsule was nearly lost at sea for the second time as it began to break loose during a storm.
There is a photo taken by a member of the crew showing some of the ship's company chipping away the ice before making it more secure. Whether this incident took place in the Kara Sea (Encyclopaedia Astronautica) or Baffin Bay (USCG) remains unresolved as a query to the photographer was not answered. Also be aware that the Astronautica web site has been updated since this was noted. However, much of the original page still exists on the All Empires History Forum website.
The 'Southwind' returned to home waters on 13th November 1970 when she docked at New London, Connecticut. It was here that the Apollo boilerplate was off-loaded for return to CTF-140. Eventually, the 'Southwind' reached her home port of Baltimore Maryland on 17th November. One crew member who was contacted during research for this piece thinks that a photo taken in Curtis Bay shows the capsule still on board. If this is correct, it means that BP-1227 had not been off-loaded when the ship arrived at Baltimore.
Once off-loaded the capsule was returned to the Port Services Department at Norfolk, Virginia. by what is loosely described as '...the usual regular supply chain between naval establishments'. This department was the unit responsible for maintaining the boilerplates allocated to CTF-140. They would have carried out any repairs needed before returning BP-1227 for service with the recovery force. Despite a FOIA request to the Port Services no information was returned as to the extent of the damage or the nature of any repairs. Once repaired, the capsule returned to service with CTF-140.
As the Apollo flights ended with the ASTP mission in July 1975, the boilerplate was returned to the Port Services Department where it was placed in storage at the Naval Air Station. According to a letter dated December 1976 from the Naval Station at Norfolk to the Grand Rapids press it was "...displayed at several events such as parades and open house activities and most recently during a visit of the American Freedom Train to Norfolk.". On 4th November 1976 title to the capsule was transferred from NASA to the National Air and Space Museum. Almost immediately NASM loaned BP-1227 to Grand Rapids, Michigan to serve as a time capsule. The boilerplate went straight from Norfolk, Virginia to its new home. Ownership of the capsule was transferred from NASM to the Grand Rapids Museum on 28th March 1986.
Before dealing with how BP-1227 came to be in the hands of the Russians it is worth setting the background to a recovery exercise. Training exercises, particularly full ones, included the ships attached to CTF-140 for a specific Apollo mission. A recovery exercise would have the ship place the boilerplate in the selected location and then stand-off at about twenty miles distance whilst the ARRS unit homed in on the capsule using a SARAH unit.
There is a clue that it was a ship that lost BP-1227 in the press accounts from 1970 when the London Times reported, "...the Americans said it was probably only a dummy blown off a United States ship." This is repeated in the Kingsport News as "...but the U.S. space agency said it probably is an old dummy Apollo moonship that blew off a Navy ship two years ago."
Though the vessels attached to CTF-140 are known, thus far requests for information have produced no confirmation though several vessels have been eliminated. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that these exercises were also conducted at times other than for a specific Apollo mission and these ships are remain unidentified despite requests to the Department of the Navy for the names of ships stationed at locations where such exercises were likely to have taken place.
Before trying to answer the question as to how BP-1227 was mislaid at sea let's clear up when the west came to hear about it. If one reads the websites mentioned previously one gets the impression that the loss of this capsule was not known about until some ten years after it was returned at Murmansk.
A photo found by Tamas Feher in 1981 in a Hungarian Space History book is labelled 'The photo that clinched it,' whilst one found by Nandor Schuminczki (a collector of space photos, books and articles) bears the title 'The photo that started it all.' Both are Hungarian and one wonders if this is the source of an unconfirmed report that negotiations for the return of the boilerplate were conducted through the US Embassy in Hungary. Contact with this Embassy failed to turn up any hint that this might be the case.
However, this aside, the hand-over was widely reported by the western press at the time. The first reference to the event is to be found in the Modesto Bee newspaper dated 3rd September 1970. The New York Times followed it on 4th September and then the London Times and the Kingsport News on the 5th whilst the European Stars and Stripes followed with an article on Sunday 6th September. There are others for those prepared to search but all are based on a UPI release to a greater or lesser extent. Al Rossiter, who was the correspondent at UPI dealing with space matters at the time, was most likely to have filed this release. Unfortunately, the original could not be found in his archives.
So, let's turn our attention to who lost it. It's interesting to note a major change in the Encyclopaedia Astronautica website from the time this research was started and now. At the start it contained these entries. From W. David Edwards and Dwayne A. Day was an entry that read, "The boilerplate CM lost by the Royal Navy and recovered by the Soviet Union was SN BP-1227." Repeated attempts to contact Dwayne Day for clarification went unanswered.
Also Adam Bootle contributed this, "I seem to remember a story that one of the UK based recovery forces lost an Apollo boilerplate...". In October 2013, Bootle's entry appears to form the basis of the Astronautica posting as comments about who lost the capsule have been reduced to "...UK based naval units." However, there is no evidence for the Royal Navy being involved. A FOIA request to the Royal Navy Archives failed to find any record of involvement with this episode, the only reference to the Apollo programme being an offer to help at the time of the Apollo 13 flight.
If not the Royal Navy, then which 'UK based' units? There was an ARRS unit based in the UK at RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk. From January 1970 this was the 67th having transferred in that month from Moron, Spain. At Woodbridge they would have had their own boilerplate to play with – BP-1206. Any recovery exercises from here were co-ordinated from Ramstein, Germany and they have no record of any loss. So, it seems most unlikely that those responsible for the loss were UK based.
This then leaves us with CTF-140 units as being the most likely culprits. As we will see later, there is strong evidence when one considers other aspects of this enquiry that the answer lays here. There were ARRS units based at Moron, Spain and at Lajes in the Azores. However, a NASA listing indicates that boilerplates were allocated to these locations – BP-1204 to Rota, Spain and BP-1223 to Lajes in the Azores. This does not entirely preclude BP-1227 also being on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
In fact, the 1976 letter to Grand Rapids hints at an ARRS unit when it says "...towards the end of the Apollo program when the Airforce was using it to train their ARRS aircraft." However, this is somewhat countered by a FOIA request to ARRS records that produced this response, "After combing the unit histories of the 67th ARRS and 40th ARRW, I could not locate anything regarding the loss of Apollo boilerplates. The histories only mention support of actual Apollo missions... basically listing how many helicopters, personnel and equipment were on alert. Training for Apollo rescues is briefly mentioned, but locations and equipment used is not listed."
Now let's turn to where BP-1227 was lost. One can rule out any suggestion that this event took place in the North Sea. The original Encyclopaedia Astronautica entry from Adam Bootle which stated that "...recovery forces lost an Apollo boilerplate in the North Sea." has been deleted from the current version of the web page. Equally unlikely is the rather vague location of the loss as mentioned in the 1976 letter to Grand Rapids that says, "...were operating off the coast of England when somehow during the exercise it was lost at sea." This statement is repeated on the plaque attached to the capsule as it serves as a time capsule.
The US Coast Guard History website places the loss much further south. To quote, "Apparently the US Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery personnel who were using the 9500 pound capsule for training but lost it at sea near the Azores...". If this were indeed the location, it would have to be well to the north of the Azores for the prevailing winds and currents to place the boilerplate anywhere near where it was recovered.
This said, the weight of evidence places the loss in the Bay of Biscay or in a location in the immediate vicinity where winds and currents would have the opportunity to blow the capsule to where it was recovered. It's worth noting here that the prevailing wind and current in the Bay run south to north from October to March (i.e. the winter months) and from north to south during the summer months. Both US and Russian sources favour the Bay of Biscay as being the location of where the capsule was found and it is logical to assume that it was lost here too.
The Kingsport News article has this to say about the location, "Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said the capsule that was discovered by Russian fishermen in the Bay of Biscayne off the coasts of Spain and France." There is one other piece of evidence to suggest that this indeed was the place. To again quote from the London Times, "It was later reported by several ships off the coast of Spain as a hazard to navigation...". This information is repeated word for word in the Kingsport News but with the addition of a cryptic "...but we never could find it."
Requests to the Spanish and French Coast Guard authorities for clarification have gone unanswered. Bearing in mind that the Apollo capsules had a drift rate of about 10% of the wind speed and given the possible length of time BP-1227 was adrift before it was recovered then the Bay becomes the favoured place.
Before dealing with when BP-1227 was lost it's worth mentioning who recovered it. There is almost universal agreement that it was a Russian vessel, though reports vary on what kind of ship this was. Most say it was a fishing boat. However, there are suggestions it was a Soviet spy ship that was monitoring the recovery exercise. An intriguing exception to this is one Finnish web site that claims that the capsule was picked up by a Hungarian trawler and handed over to the Russians.
One wonders if this is the source of a Wikipedia entry that says "BP-1227 - This was lost in the North Sea in early 1970, recovered by a Hungarian vessel, transferred to the Soviet Union, and returned to the US in September 1970 by the USCGC_Southwind." As has been pointed out previously, the location quoted goes against the majority of the reports that clearly state the capsule was recovered in the Bay of Biscay. It needs a huge leap of imagination to think that a boilerplate could drift from the North Sea to "...off the coast of Spain."
So to when it was lost. Again there are widely different times. The earliest date is February 1969. The USCG History website says "...in February 1969." This would seem to be borne out by the the Modesto Bee article from 1970 that reports, "While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said it is glad to get the thing back, a spokesman said as far as NASA can determine, the object is a dummy Apollo capsule the Navy lost two years ago...". The Encyclopaedia Astronautica entry places the time in early 1970, to quote "In early 1970...".
A response from the Department of the Navy seems to agree with 1970 though it is rather ambiguous. "Researching in our office, we determined that the capsule was lost at sea and recovered by the Soviets some time in 1970." Whether 'early' extends to April 1970 isn't clear, but this is the month when Russian reports claim the capsule went missing. In fact, according to one newspaper report an exact date may be placed on the event. On the night of 11/12th April, because of the weather conditions at the time, the recovery forces of the US Navy lost sight of the boilerplate. A Russian spy ship was shadowing these forces as the Navy had declared it a restricted area and it was this vessel that nipped in and picked it up.
There are three things to note about this. First, it was common practice for a restricted zone to be placed round recovery exercises, though this was for safety reasons not secrecy. Second, the weather on the night in question was described as 'squalls and snow'. This has been confirmed by a meteorologist as a reasonable description of the weather prevailing at that time. Third, these dates correspond to the date of a Soviet exercise 'Ocean 70' when the Russian nuclear submarine K-8 got into difficulties and eventually sank. There is no evidence that the two events are connected, but it is strange that discovering answers relating to who, when and where have proved so fraught.
Though totally circumstantial, the known facts do seem to support the notion that a recovery exercise out of Rota, Spain in support of the Apollo 13 mission was interrupted by the Soviet submarine getting into difficulties. With units involved rushing off to aid K-8, the capsule was lost sight of when the beacons became damaged in the weather and, not finding it, BP-1227 was reported to be a 'hazard at sea'. At this point the Russian trawler collected it. It might explain also one report that to save embarrassment on both sides secrecy agreements were reached to keep details of the event quiet until 2021.
There are a couple of other scenarios that very loosely fit the known facts. The first is highly improbable though not impossible. As was recorded earlier, one report gives February 1969 and another as the loss occurring two years prior to the capsule's return. About this time there were retrieval exercises in support of the Apollo 9 mission.
A CTF report comments that the weather conditions were marginal throughout the retrieval exercises with up to 20ft seas and winds of 40 to 45 knots. Eventually this led to a shift of the prime recovery area of some 410 nautical miles. It records also an incident when a capsule broke free. The CM was being raised by the Guadalcanal and was some three feet clear of the water when the crane lifting it failed, dropping it back into the water. Though still attached at this point, the swell caused the full weight of the capsule to jerk against the swivel holding it allowing it to disconnect. Might this have happened to a boilerplate as the Algol and Chilton rehearsed retrievals?
There is a curious anomaly associated with these retrieval exercises. The Apollo Chronology, in the only mention of retrieval exercises that have been found, says that between January 24–29, "...recovery training exercises were conducted aboard the U.S.S. Guadalcanal, the prime recovery ship for Apollo 9." This would seem to be at odds with the CTF report which states that Guadalcanal conducted two training retrievals and day and night helicopter operations on January 16–17, with the USS Chilton making two training retrievals on January 29th. The report has no mention of exercises between these dates.
However, for the most likely explanation one must return to the statement by NASA reported in September 1970 by the London Times that the capsule was washed overboard during a storm whilst in transit to an exercise off the coast of Spain. To prove this one needs to identify the ship concerned and to explain why the capsule needed to be transported to the eastern Atlantic when boilerplates were already located there.
It has to be stressed that there is no hard evidence that this is the case for despite FOIA requests to all the relevant bodies concerned, they claim either to have no records or that no records exist. There is, however, one case in particular where an answer might be found. This concerns the logs of the 'Southwind'. They are held at NARA, 14700 Townsend Road, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19154-1096. The Accession/Locator numbers are F-03-16-05-5 through F-03-16-06-1. Despite three FOIA requests neither acknowledgement nor answer was received.
To round off this account, some odd related facts that may have, or most probably have not, a bearing on the case. In May 1970, NASA Administrator Tom Paine met with Soviet Academy member Blagonavov in New York. They discussed a possibility of a joint programme and the Russian felt that "...some new signal was in the works." Is this a coded reference that the Soviets had the Apollo boilerplate and were preparing to return it? This may not be as far fetched as it sounds. Returning again to the Kingsport News, it has this to say. "[The] Russians recently asked in a telegram if the United States wanted the capsule back and information was sent to the US Embassy in Moscow to help positively identify it."
Later, in 1971 the CIA in a report on a National Intelligence Estimate of the Soviet Space Programme stated that "Nearly all past efforts by the US to induce the Soviets to engage in cooperative or joint space programmes have met with limited success." The report goes on the record that in October 1970, a month after the return of BP-1227, talks began on the desirability of compatible Soviet and US rendezvous and docking systems.
Finally a personal note. It may be that I'm on the wrong side of the Atlantic to unlock the doors that might lead to providing a definitive answer to the circumstances surrounding the loss and recovery of BP-1227. I'm more than happy to turn over this investigation with the hope that whoever takes it up has more success than me.