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On NASA “Boilerplates” March 16, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Science.
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Usually when you think of the word “boilerplate”, you might think of some sort of insincere, hackneyed statement from a public relations person or a politician.  But when it comes to the history of space exploration, the term takes on a much more important meaning.

Boilerplate spacecraft are simulations of the real spacecraft, having the size and shape of the real thing on the outside, but are not actual flight articles.  Their use is for simulation and testing without putting an actual, flight-ready spacecraft at risk to damage, etc.  The video above offers a more thorough explanation with some excellent examples of how such mock-ups were utilized.

I have had the privilege of encountering lots of genuine NASA spacecraft over the years, but I’ve encountered a few interesting “boilerplates” as well.  Indeed, by interest in space was kindled by frequent encounters with a boilerplate.  As a Louisville, Ky., native who lived the first 6 and a half years of his life in that city, my parents often took us to what is today called the Kentucky Science Center (back then it was the Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science).  From about 1980 (the year I was born) to about 1996, they had an impressive space gallery on the first floor, with all sorts of cool space artifacts.

I can still see them all as a kid, walking along and viewing the amazing vestiges of “vintage space”.  There was a test pilot’s helmet from the 1950s; various astronaut gloves, an astronaut suit (whose specifically I cannot recall); a 1:4 scale model of an Apollo Lunar Module; an old Gemini simulator that you could actually sit down inside; part of an old rocket engine; 1960s-era NASA mainframe computer panels (no joke – these made up a mini-corridor all their own); a scaled down model of an Apollo Command Module, pre-launch, hence its white exterior (about 1:8 scale, give or take).

But the obvious crown jewel of the exhibit was Apollo BP-1102A, a water egress-training module.  After Apollo 13’s “successful failure,” NASA removed the interior of that used spacecraft and moved it into this particular boilerplate for investigation purposes.  The shell of the Command Module Odyssey was eventually put on display at the Air and Space Museum in Paris (yes, France), while Odyssey’s interior and newly wed BP-1102A somehow found their way to the museum in Louisville.  In that same room, there was a photo of all three astronauts from that mission on hand for an exhibit inauguration ceremony in front of the museum’s façade along Main Street in downtown.  Since this was around the time I was born, it was a fortunate thing that all three astronauts — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise — were able to be together again, as Swigert died of cancer roughly two years later, ironically just after getting elected to Congress.

As a very young boy, I did not know about “Boilerplates”:  all I understood was that the Apollo 13 was in my hometown.  As I got older, it gradually dawned on me that the authentic part of the display was the capsule’s interior, while the exterior shell was a mock-up.  The copper-colored paint job was to make the boilerplate look like the Block II Apollo Command Modules during splashdown, after they burned to a golden-brown color during re-entry on account of the massive fraction of Earth’s atmosphere.

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As a Louisville native who visited the Kentucky Science Center as often as I could growing up, encountering this distinctive Apollo boilerplate at the Udvar-Hazy Center was like seeing an old friend.  (C) photo by the author; Nov., 2014.

But all good things come to an end, sooner or later.  By the latter half of the 1990s, the whole spacecraft was gone.  The popular 1995 film Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and the late Bill Paxton had apparently made the local spacecraft landmark too valuable a commodity to be tucked away in Louisville.  What I heard at the time was they reunited the interior with the exterior shell, but the “restored” spacecraft’s whereabouts were unclear to me, until I later found it that it was on new display at the increasingly famous Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Ks. (Of all bloody places!)  Moreover, the space hall was moved up to the second floor of the museum, and by that time, it was already a shell of its former self.  Presently, the whole exhibit has been phased out, sadly, but the Gemini simulator is still on display there, thankfully, ever inviting guests to sit down inside and experience a hint of “vintage space” for themselves.

But one thing I did wonder for the longest time was, whatever happened to BP-1102A?  Only in recent years did I learn of NASA spacecraft boilerplates, and that is when I “put two and two together” and realized that I had many a hands-on encounter with such a test model while growing up and did not even realize it at the time.  Convinced I would never see it again, I was eventually proven mistaken.

A past job fortuitously took me out to the East Coast for a month in November of 2014.  While there, I seized the opportunity to visit the Udvar-Hazy Center (a remote annex to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum) near Dulles International Airport.  While there, I came upon a boilerplate that looked eerily similar to the one I always ran to the old space hall in Louisville as a young boy.  Further research afterwards indicated that I had indeed seen an old “friend” for the first time in almost 20 years.  In addition to being given a much more prominent venue for display (it does not get any bigger or higher-profile than the Smithsonian), it has also been fitted with the flotation collar and balloons from the Apollo 11 – talk about an upgrade!

Not too long after this reunion of sorts, I came across another Apollo boilerplate (29A), this time at the immense Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.  Obviously, it is but a small side-show to the main attraction, but it is intriguing to encounter nonetheless.  Much like BP 1102A, the purpose of Boilerplate 29A was to test the systems that helped the Apollo capsules stay afloat during splashdown in the ocean.

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Another Apollo Boilerplate (29A) that I encountered while visiting the massive Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.  (C) photo by author; May, 2015.

The lesson of this story – such as there is one at all – is to keep your eyes peeled for these interesting space artifacts during your sojourns, as you never know when you might encounter them.  After all, as the video at the top of the article reminds us, they have their own special place in the history of space travel and the development thereof.

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