In 2002 this web site broke the story that the Soviet Union had recovered an Apollo capsule in 1969 and returned it to the Americans a year later in the extraordinary Cold War visit to Murmansk by the American Coast Guard icebreaker Southwind. Recently Michael Stronski, a Southwind crew member, has provided additional extraordinary photographs of the event.
Michael Stronski's photo of the captured Apollo capsule.
The circumstances of the loss of the capsule are still not clear. It is not known whether the Soviet 'fishing vessel' was in fact a spy trawler and if the capsule was taken as part of an intelligence operation. If so, little of value could be obtained from the boilerplate. While the parachute compartments and recovery aids at the top of the boilerplate were probably representative of flight hardware, the rest of the capsule was built of sheet metal with a fiberglass representation of the heat shield. However US intelligence agencies had made Herculean attempts to make detailed examination of similar mock-ups or stripped versions of Soviet spacecraft so this possibility cannot be dismissed.
The story remained obscure and unknown for 32 years until a Hungarian space archivist came across a picture of the event in his archives...
The Investigation - a Remarkable Story of Internet Collective Research
It all began with an e-mail from noted Hungarian space archivist Nandor Schuminszky. He contacted me with an amazing photograph showing an Apollo capsule being handed over from the Soviet Union to American representatives in 1970:
I could only imagine this was a water recovery test article lost by the US Navy. Checks of the Field Guide to American Spacecraft and NASA histories showed no record in Western sources of the event. So I posted the picture to the sci.space.history newsgroup. Many were dismissive but several dedicated researchers went on the case. The thread was passed over to sci.military.naval and valuable information was received:
Adam Bootle reported:
I seem to remember a story that one of the UK based recovery forces lost an Apollo boilerplate in the North Sea. And it was picked up by a foreign fishing vessel
John Charles confirmed: "...First, it is a Block 2 (looking at the shape of the forward RCS) CM boilerplate. Second, the lettering on the capsule appears to spell NASA in the "standard" font that I have seen on other recovered BPs....The sailors are obviously US Navy, the civilians look like Europeans...."
Eugene L Griessel identified the vessel in the background as a "Wind" class US Coast Guard icebreaker.
The clincher came when another Hungarian correspondent, Tamas Feher came up with a SECOND picture of the event. He wrote:
I checked and found the attached picture in :
Now this picture quite clearly showed Murmansk in the background and the foredeck of a "Wind" class Coast Guard Icebreaker in the foreground (with the forward gun mount removed, onto which the capsule is being lowered).
As for which specific vessel it could be, a check at Ken Laesser's Coast Guard History site showed that the vessel was the Southwind, which was listed as operating in resupply of Arctic bases in June-November 1970, reaching a record 83 deg N latitude on 15 August. Home based in Baltimore, Maryland, the Southwind matched the vessel in the photos both in having the forward gun mount deleted and in the configuration of the aerials and radar.
This information was then consolidated and then posted back to sci.space.history and the fpspace listserver. The final identification came rapidly. First Jonathan McDowell reported:
...there were a series of Apollo BP's used for similar training. JSC-03600 reports that BP-1204 was with Carrier Task Force 140 at Rota, Spain; BP-1215 was with CTF 130 at Yokoska, Japan; BP-1223 in the Azores. There's no indication of one assigned to the RN but many of the series BP-1201 to BP-1233 don't have any explicit assigned role but were probably used in this kind of operation.W. David Edwards and Dwayne Allen Day then provided a final identification:
The boilerplate CM lost by the Royal Navy and recovered by the Soviet Union was SN BP-1227. It currently serves as a time capsule in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, to be re-opened in 2076! For more information see the website at: http://aesp.nasa.okstate.edu/fieldguide/pages/apollo/BP-1227.html. The command module boilerplate is now displayed outside the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. The plaque on the side reads:Finally, the story was rounded out when Joel Carpenter found an Internet message board for members of the Southwind crew and got in touch with participants in the event and obtained first-hand accounts and a US photograph:
Crew member Mike Malone reported: I do remember picking the capsule up in Murmansk. We brought it back to the US but I don't remember where we off-loaded it. It was the USCGC Southwind that was involved and the visit to Murmansk was in between segments of oceanographic surveys in the Barents and Kara seas during the late summer of 1970. As far as I knew the pickup of the capsule was just incidental to a visit that would have occurred anyway and was something of a surprise. We were told that we were the first military vessel into Murmansk since WWII but I don't know if that is confirmed. The visit was kind of a big deal with ceremonies and what not. I'm attaching another picture from the cruise book.
Crew member Nevin Fahnestock remembered: I spent from 3-70 to 12-71....Made two north trips to Greenland, Iceland, Murmansk, Tromso, Portsmouth, Oslo, and Copenhagen. Had Russian icebreaker drift into us in the middle of the night. Have some wonderful memories!!
Phil Jordan recalled:
I was on Southwind from 69-71 as SA/SNBM. Remember BMCM Hamlin, BM1 Williams, Graham Jones, Mike Pendleton, Bobby Padgett, GMI Ray Burr and many more. This is the period of time we made the port call to Murmansk and picked up an American space capsule. We also were gently nudged by a Russian ice breaker in the early morning hours one Saturday. This trip also provided us with the opportunity to make the most northern surface penetration of any US icebreaker (at that time ) 83 -01 North. The memories keep coming. I retired from Sta Little Creek, Va in 1990 as a BMCM.Years after this article first appeared, Roger R. Reece contributed the following:
I played in a band on board the Southwind and we had the privilege of playing in Murmansk during a reception held in our honor. We were doing well until I sang the Beatles song "Back in the USSR." The band was promptly escorted off the stage and not allowed to continue�.I think that I am the first person to have actually had the privilege of singing the song in Russia�This was the one and only visit to a Soviet military port during the cold war to my knowledge. The only thing I can recall is that we were not informed of picking up the Apollo capsule until we were a few days out of Murmansk.
And this came in from Michael Stronski in 2007:
I was there and have pictures of Southwind from the city's high point, a Russian convoy on the streets, the capsule on the ship, pictures of Lenin on store walls, the Russian icebreaker that always followed us, even the Russian pilot that came aboard our ship when we were told that all port holes had to be closed (took heat for that picture, that was a no-no at that time). I was standing at the point of impact when that Russian ship drifted into us. He hit us on the starboard side about 10 feet from the bow and general quarters were sounded�I served on the ship from 1969 to 1972.Other crew members that remembered the trip to Murmansk were Bobby Padgett , Jeff Williams, and Joe Farrell.
A few details still could be clarified: