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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.


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.


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.

Voyager 1 at 35; still making discoveries! December 31, 2012

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Although this photo was taken by the Voyager 1 probe over 30 years ago, it still remains one of the most iconic images of Saturn in the minds of many people on Earth today.

As the year 2012 comes to a close, it is worth remembering that out in the distant cosmos, the Voyager probes continue to speed along, blazing new trails in so doing.  It has been 35 years and counting since they were launched to photograph and analyze the gas giant planets in our solar system in unprecedented detail.  Once those primary objectives were completed, the next stage was to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, and then leave it completely to star systems beyond.

All the while, they have left us some indelible images.  Voyager 1 first flew by Jupiter in 1979, not only taking better pictures of our system’s largest planet than ever before, but making key discoveries along the way.  Not only did it find some new satellites, but its discovery of volcanic activity on the Gallilean moon Io was a find that led us to totally rethink the possibilities of different kinds of geological activity throughout our neighboring planets.

When Voyager 1 flew by Saturn a little over a year later, it gave us many new, detailed photos of Saturn, one of which still remains one of the most iconic images of that distant, large, ringed planets, despite Cassini’s more detailed photos that started to reach us about eight years ago.

So while Voyager 1’s primary mission was completed over three decades ago, it was just warming up compared to its second major set of objectives.  Three and and half decades onward, some scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., continue to monitor the probe’s progress, and recently, it has started to make headlines in the scientific community yet again.

Oh, it has a list of decent achievements since 1981, to be sure, yet its recent discovery has really made headlines!  Back when I was in the fourth grade, I remember seeing in my Weekly Reader how scientists hoped that the Voyager probes (specifically Voyager 2, but the same goes for ol’ No. 1) would reach the end of the solar system by 2015.  At that point, I was thinking “2015?  Pluto’s not that much further beyond Neptune, is it?”*  Well, it turns out there is a lot in our Heliosphere beyond the planets that we know of.  Speaking of which, how many of us knew what the Kuiper Belt was before the Voyager probes boldly went through where no man-made probe had gone before?

Now, Voyager 1 has boldly gone further still.  Earlier this month, the scientific community was abuzz about the probe getting its first-ever taste of interstellar space (and ours, too, albeit vicariously!).  Ed Stone, a project scientist who continues to monitor Voyager 1 at JPL, has pointed out that while getting closer and closer to actual interstellar space, the probe has discovered something totally new:  a “magnetic superhighway!”  Yes, this is what the scientists are currently describing this outer edge of the Heliosphere (basically, the part of space that the Sun has any influence over regarding gravitational pull, magnetic/radiation direction, etc.).

One naturally is inclined to ask, how has the probe lasted so long?  Would it not have gone dead long ago?  Would its, er, battery not have died out?  Well, Ed Stone points out that the nuclear fuel used to power the craft has an 88-year half-life.  That would be plenty of time to leave the Heliosphere and relay data of what it is like to truly be in interstellar space.

So, as its mission surpasses 35 years and counting, Voyager 1 continues to boldly go to send us data on its new discoveries and exploratory firsts.  Any of us interested in studying space shall wait in the coming months and couple of years to see what other firsts the probe will achieve.  Happy New Year!

Oh, and just think; in 2015, the New Horizons probe is expected to reach Pluto, and give us unprecedented photos and info from that part of the Solar System!

*The occasion of the Voyager 2 probe being given the main story in my Weekly Reader during my fourth grade year in the early Fall of 1989 was that it just passed up the planet Neptune; a new exploratory achievement for any man-made probe!