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A boilerplate spacecraft, also known as a mass simulator, is a nonfunctional craft or payload that is used to test various configurations and basic size, load, and handling characteristics of rocket launch vehicles. It is far less expensive to build multiple, full-scale, non-functional boilerplate spacecraft than it is to develop the full system (design, test, redesign, and launch). In this way, boilerplate spacecraft allow components and aspects of cutting-edge aerospace projects to be tested while detailed contracts for the final project are being negotiated. These tests may be used to develop procedures for mating a spacecraft to its launch vehicle, emergency access and egress, maintenance support activities, and various transportation processes.
Boilerplate spacecraft are most commonly used to test crewed spacecraft; for example, in the early 1960s, NASA performed many tests using boilerplate Apollo spacecraft atop Saturn I rockets, and Mercury spacecraft atop Atlas rockets (for example Big Joe 1). The engine-less Space Shuttle Enterprise was used as a boilerplate to test launch stack assembly and transport to the launch pad. The development of NASA's Project Constellation used boilerplate Orion spacecraft atop an Ares I rocket for initial testing. More recently, on February 6, 2018, SpaceX founder Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster was used as a dummy payload on the maiden launch of the company's Falcon Heavy rocket.
Mercury boilerplates were manufactured "in-house" by NASA Langley Research Center technicians prior to McDonnell Aircraft Company building the Mercury spacecraft. The boilerplate capsules were designed and used to test spacecraft recovery systems, and escape tower and rocket motors. Formal tests were done on the test pad at Langley and at Wallops Island using the Little Joe rockets.
The term boilerplate originated from the use of boilerplate steel for the construction of test articles/mock-ups. Historically, during the development of the Little Joe series of 7 launch vehicles, there was only one actual boilerplate capsule and it was called such since its conical section was made of steel at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. This capsule was used in a beach abort test, and then subsequently used in the LJ1A flight. However, the term subsequently came to be used for all the prototype capsules (which in their own right were nearly as complicated as the orbital capsules). This usage was technically incorrect, as those other capsules were not made of boilerplate, but the boilerplate term had effectively been genericized.
There were seven Gemini boilerplates: BP-1, 2, 3, 3A, 4, 5, and 201. Gemini Boilerplate 3A had functional doors and had multi-uses for testing watertightness, flotation collars, and egress procedures.
NASA created a variety of Apollo boilerplates. A list of them can be found in Apollo Section of A Field Guide to American Spacecraft.
Apollo boilerplates were used in the Launch Escape System (LES) for tests of the jettison tower rockets and procedures:
BP-1101A was used in numerous tests to develop spacecraft recovery equipment and procedures. Specifically, 1101A tested the air bags as part of the "up-righting" procedure when the Apollo lands upside down in the water. The sequence of the bags inflating caused the capsule to roll and up-right itself.
This McDonnell boilerplate is now on loan to the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, Denver, Colorado, from the Smithsonian. BP-1101A has an external painted marking of AP.5. Examination of the interior in 2006 revealed large heavy steel ingots. After further research, a new paint scheme was applied in June 2007.
BP-1102 was used for water egress trainer for all Apollo flights, including by the crew of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission. It was also adapted for mock-up interior components and used by astronauts to practice routine and emergency exits from the spacecraft.
It was then modified again where the interior was set up to be configured either as Apollo/Soyuz or a proposed five-person Skylab Rescue vehicle. With these two conversions, astronauts could train for those special missions. It was finally transferred from NASA to the Smithsonian in 1977, and is displayed now at the Hazy Center with the flotation collar and bags that were attached to Columbia at the end of its historic mission.
The purpose of this series design was to simulate the weight and other external physical characteristics of the Apollo command module. These prototypes were in the 9000 lb range for both laboratory water tanks and ocean tests. The experiments tested flotation collars, collar installations, and buoyancy characteristics. The Navy trained their recovery personnel for ocean collar installation and shipboard retrieval procedures. These boilerplates rarely had internal equipment. See BP-1220 photo.
BP-1224 was a Component level Flammability Test Program to test for design decisions on selection and application of nonmetallic materials. Boilerplate configuration comparisons with Command Service Module 2TV-1 and 101 were performed by North American. The NASA Review Board decided on February 5, 1967, that the boilerplate configuration had determined a reasonable "worst case" configuration, after more than 1,000 tests were performed. See BP-1224 photo set.
Details regarding this test capsule are not clear, but most likely it was lost at sea somewhere between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay in early 1969, and recovered in June 1969 off Gibraltar by the Soviet fishing trawler 'Apatit' (possibly a Soviet spy ship disguised as such, which was commonplace during the Cold War), transferred to the port of Murmansk in the Soviet Union, and returned to the US in September 1970 by the USCGC Southwind (WAGB-280). It is now located in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a time capsule. See BP-1227 photo or Google Street View image. The only certainties about this capsule are that it was returned to the United States at Murmansk early in September 1970 during a visit by the USCG Southwind who returned it to the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia. There it remained until title was passed to the Smithsonian in April 1976 when it was passed on to Grand Rapids, Michigan to serve as a time capsule. Two official sources – the US Navy and the US Coastguard – both say that it was lost by an ARRS (Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron) unit training in recovery procedures. A contemporary account of its return quotes a NASA spokesman as saying, “ … as far as NASA can determine the object… the Navy lost two years ago.”. When BP-1227 was lost ranges from 1968 to 1970 depending on which account one reads. This uncertainty may be due to a Russian account that claims there is an agreement between the Russians and the US to keep details secret until 2021.
First in March 1978 at the Marshall Space Flight Center and then again in June 1979, the Space Shuttle Enterprise was fitted together with an external tank and two inert solid rocket motors in a test-bed or boilerplate configuration. The STS-1 preliminary mission test program consisted of vibration tests in a horizontal mode at the Marshall Center, and then in a vertical launch configuration on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. In 1985, the boilerplate configuration was used to test the Air Force shuttle facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base, including a full mating on the SLC-6 launch pad.
NASA’s future space flights to the Moon were planned for 2015. These flights were to be based upon the Orion spacecraft and its Ares launch vehicle. The Shuttles were retired in 2011. The Orion boilerplates were planned to be used between 2008 and 2014 with the Ares I and the heavy-lift Ares V launch vehicles, both of which were slated to launch initially from NASA’s Pad 39B site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The construction of the first Orion boilerplate, will be a basic mockup prototype to test the assembling sequences and launch procedures at NASA’s Langley Research Center while Lockheed aerospace engineers assemble the first rocket motors for the spacecraft’s escape tower. The first boilerplate will go to Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, California, for integration of Lockheed's avionics and NASA's developmental flight instrumentation prior to shipment to New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range for the first Orion pad abort test (PA-1) in 2009. On November 20, 2008 a complete test of the abort rockets took place in Utah. PA-1 is the first of the six test events in Orion Abort Flight Test subproject. Lockheed Martin Corp. was awarded the contract to build Orion on Aug. 31, 2006.
Other boilerplates will be used to test thermal, electromagnetic, audio, mechanical vibration conditions and research studies. These tests for the Orion spacecraft will be done at Plum Brook Station in the agency’s Ohio-based Glenn Research Center. The first boilerplate Orions will launched/tested as early as 2008.
On March 2, 2009, the LAS Pathfinder began its transfer from the Langley Research Center to the White Sands Missile Range, for first PA-1 launch tests. Pathfinder is the combination of the Orion boilerplate and the LAS module.
The Orion-Ares configuration was part of NASA's Project Constellation. This project's plan was to send humans to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the solar system. Its base components were to have consisted of the Launch Abort System, the Crew Module, the Service Module, and the Spacecraft Adapter.