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The Story Behind The Apollo Capsule In Grand Rapids

Courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum
Courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum

After a discussion with a co-worker about the Apollo Capsule in front of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, I had a bunch of questions about its origin.  The story I first heard was that it was an actual Apollo Capsule that was used on an Apollo Rocket.  Well, that isn’t exactly true.

It turns out that the capsule is an actual Apollo Capsule, but it wasn’t a capsule that sat atop an Apollo Rocket.  The capsule was made for training astronauts.  But don’t let that news get you down, the capsule still has quite the history to it!

This type of capsule is known as a “Boilerplate”.  According to wikipedia: “A boilerplate spacecraft, also known as a mass simulator, is a nonfunctional craft or payload which is used to test various configurations and basic size, load, and handling characteristics of rocket launch vehicles.”

The Apollo Capsule (boilerplate) in front of the Grand Rapids Public Museum is BP-1227.  This capsule was built, along with dozens of other capsules, in the 1960s to test various systems on the Apollo Rockets.  Now this is where the story gets a little bit weird…

BP-1227 was lost at sea in early 1970 during a routine training drill to recover the Apollo boilerplate capsule by UK-based naval units.  Later that same year, the capsule that was lost was miraculously recovered by a Russian “fishing vessel.”  Many believe that the fishing vessel was actually a spy boat that was tracking the capsule as part of an intelligence operation.

The capsule was taken back to Russia and in late 1970 the Russians invited the Americans to recover their capsule.  On September 8th, 1970 the US Navy Icebreaker, Southwind, made a stop in Murmansk to recover BP-1227.  This was the first visit to a Soviet port by a US military vessel since World War II.

After the capsule was returned, the Smithsonian Institution spent the next several years restoring BP-1227 before it was eventually given on loan to the City of Grand Rapids in 1976.  The boilerplate capsule was dedicated to the people of Grand Rapids on December 31, 1976.  Students from local high schools filled BP-1227 with everyday items from their lives to form a time capsule.  The time capsule was sealed on the last day of our nation’s Bicentennial year and it is to be opened on July 4th, 2076, as our nation celebrates its Tricentennial.

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