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: a 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.

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Retrotechtacular: Cold War-Era Hardware Keyloggers

As Cold War tensions increased throughout the 1970s, the Soviets pulled out all the stops when it came to digging up information from US diplomats. This NSA memo from 2012 explains how several IBM Selectric typewriters used in the Moscow and Leningrad offices were successfully bugged with electromechanical devices that could possibly have been the world’s first keyloggers.

The Selectric prints with a ball that is spun and tilted to select the desired character. Two mechanical arms control the ball’s spin and tilt, and the keylogger read out the position of those arms. Thus, each character on the Selectric’s type element ball has its own signature. The sensing part of the keylogging mechanism was buried in part of the typewriter chassis, a metal bar that spans the width of the machine, and were so well hidden that they could only have been detected by complete dissassembly or x-ray.

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