Spy Tech: How an Apollo Capsule Landed in Michigan after a Layover in the USSR

There’s an Apollo module on display in Michigan and its cold-war backstory is even more interesting than its space program origins.

Everyone who visits the Van Andel Museum Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan is sure to see the Apollo Command Module flanking the front entrance. Right now it’s being used as a different kind of capsule: as time capsule they’ll open in 2076 (the American tricentennial). If you look close though, this isn’t an actual Command Module but what they call a “boilerplate.”

Technically, these were mass simulators made cheaply for certain tests and training purposes. A full spacecraft costs a lot of money but these — historically made out of boilerplate steel — could be made with just the pieces necessary and using less expensive materials. What you might not know is that the boilerplate at the Van Ardel — BP 1227 — has a cold war spy history unlike any other boilerplate in the fleet.

The early life of BP 1227 is a little sketchy. It appears the Navy was using it for recovery training somewhere between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay in early 1969. We don’t know for sure if the picture to the left is BP 1227 or not. Comparing it to the one at the museum, it probably isn’t, but then again the museum’s does have a fresh paint job and possibly a top cap. Regardless, the picture to the left was from 1966 in the Atlantic, giving us an idea of how boilerplate capsules were put into service.

In those days — the height of the cold war — Naval ships were often followed by Soviet “fishing trawlers.” These were universally understood to be spy ships — Auxiliary, General Intelligence or AGI vessels.

The AGI, the Navy, and a Capsule Lost

AGI crews were highly trained, and after the Cuban missile crisis, the U. S. Navy had a program to actively discourage them by pushing against them, fouling their screws with steel nets, and focusing high power electromagnetic transmitters to burn out their electronic sensors. There were even cases of dumping ship’s garbage from a helo onto the decks of an AGI. Of course, the AGIs also crowded the U. S. ships and occasionally would strike them, so it wasn’t all one sided. This ended — for the most part — when both sides signed a treaty in 1972.

However, in 1969, U. S. Navy ships often had AGI shadows. We don’t know the exact circumstances or if one or more AGIs were involved, but apparently BP 1227 was lost during those 1969 training exercises. It is a good bet that if an AGI was not involved in causing the loss, one or more did know exactly where the boilerplate capsule went down.

What Happened Next?

The is where the story goes cold for a while. There is a rumor that we know so little because the US and the Soviets agreed not to disclose some details of what happened until 2021 — which isn’t that far away. Here’s what we do know.

This is the Southwind, a US Coast Guard Wind-class icebreaker which was in the fleet for less than a year before the ship was given over to the Russians in 1945 as part of the Lend-Lease program. She was renamed the Admiral Makarov and joined Russia’s fleet for a brief five years before they gave her back and she became a US Navy ship, Atka.

In 1966, the Coast Guard got the ship back from the Navy and reverted the name to Southwind. You’re likely wondering why the long backstory on this ship. In 1970, is was the Southwind that became the first U. S. vessel to visit the Soviet Union since the end of World War II. The ship had an AGI escort, the whole way.

It docked at Murmansk where the crew took shore leave and the ship was open for public tours by Soviet citizens. The surprise, though, was when the Soviets presented Southwind with BP 1227 which had been found by a “fishing boat.”  They lashed the faux capsule to the deck, and returned it to England. NASA eventually took possession and gave it to the Smithsonian. From there it was loaned for 100 years to the museum in Grand Rapids.

Spy Games

You can only speculate on why the Soviets would do this. It is doubtful they forcibly took the capsule, of course. We would guess it went under and they returned under better conditions and salvaged it. Why take the trouble? Maybe to say that they could. After all, the U. S. spent a lot of effort to temporarily steal a Lunik capsule that was also not a working flight article. You never know what information you could glean from something like that until you have it in your hands. You’d think the propaganda value alone would be good, but surprisingly, few people know the story of BP 1227. But now, you do.

Nearly 50 years later, with the Russians and the U. S. as major partners in the International Space Station it is hard to imagine that this kind of thing went on. You also have to wonder what a world space program with one direction and one massive budget could accomplish.

[Main image by Lisa Fessenden via A Field Guide to American Spacecraft]

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