It’s hard to believe that these days we’d allow an 8-foot-wide, 5,151-pound Russian space capsule to hurtle down just off the Washington coast, guided by a Russian missile-tracking ship. But that’s what happened 25 years ago during the glasnost “openness” era.
Try to imagine the Drudge Report or Alex Jones’ InfoWars sites headlining this story: An 8-foot-wide Russian space capsule weighing 5,152 pounds was hurtling toward the Washington state coast.
The capsule was put together in the once-closed city of Samara by the banks of the Volga River.
It was launched by the workhorse Proton rocket from the once-secret Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia that was an intercontinental ballistic missile site.
And it was guided by a once-secret Russian missile-tracking ship “bristling with radar” that went right into U.S. territorial waters.
Oh, sure, it was touted as a “goodwill” mission.
Who do you trust?
Such an event happened nearly 25 years ago, on Nov. 23, 1992.
The capsule splashed down 120 miles off Grays Harbor in the Pacific Ocean.
It was the work of Russian businessmen “for a peaceful demonstration of Russian space prowess.”
Their big concept was going nowhere in finding a U.S. partner until the late Bob Walsh — the Seattle SuperSonics front-office executive and entrepreneur always looking for something to pursue — signed on.
It’s now a largely forgotten episode of the glasnost (“openness”) era when the Soviet Union dissolved. We were all going to be friends, remember?
You can see the metal alloy capsule at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, hanging about 12 feet off the floor.
A rusty orange color, and its heat-protective coating all scuffed-up, it certainly looks like it had made 10 polar orbits before a fiery descent.
Instead of a military payload, the capsule was crammed with 19 containers filled with, to say the least, an unusual assortment of souvenirs and literature from what was termed “a new generation of Russian entrepreneurs.”
A small portion of what was in the containers is in the archives of the museum. The rest of the materials — nobody knows what happened to them. Things get lost or given away.
The items stored in the museum include a not-particularly-unusual commemorative plate, glass figurines, lapel pins and a jade gift box.
But plastic-encased ball bearings?
Promotional literature for a film called, “UFO. Top Secret” that its makers hoped to market in America?
There is a certain innocence and naiveté in what was in the containers.
Here is an explanation as to why, from professor Galya Diment, of the University of Washington’s Slavic Language and Literature Department. A native Russian speaker, she translated some of the archival material used in this story.
The ball bearings came along with a brochure from the GPZ-4 plant, “one of the largest plants in the world bearing industry.”
It touted the plant’s “social infrastructures … such as polyclinic, hospital, after-work sanitariums,” not forgetting “palaces of culture, pioneer camps …”
Diment says, “During the Soviet years it was a closed city. No foreigner could go in there. They were finally enjoying being open and sharing secrets that were never really secrets.”
About the UFO film, from the “Untraditional Research Centre,” she says about Russians, “They’re sort of mystical.”
At least in Seattle, the mission got big publicity. Walsh made sure of that.
“Seattle greets a new order — Soviet capsule, visitors symbolize good will,” was one of the headlines in this newspaper.
The story began, “That a Russian rocket could be fired into space and drop its payload off the U.S. coast without sending the country into a panic is one sign of how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War, say organizers of what has been dubbed ‘the friendship-rocket’ project.”
The promoters tried to be creative in naming the project, also calling it the “Star of Columbus” or the “Resurs-500.” The references were to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. “Resurs,” which means “resource” in Russian, was part of a class of spacecraft.
In “Who the Hell is Bob,” a book about Bob Walsh’s numerous exploits, Seattle sports writer Steve Rudman says: “It had taken fifty-five construction workers in Samara and 50,000 construction workers, strung from one end of the former Soviet landscape to the other, nine months to transform the Europe-America 500 Space Flight project from high fancy into a celestial reality.”
Rudman writes that the project caused considerable squeamishness with U.S. government officials.
“Bob received frequent, late-night phone calls from a directory of federal agencies demanding answers to a myriad of questions,” he writes.
At 10:32 a.m. of that Nov. 23, the metal sphere deployed a parachute and came down into waters with 50 mph winds and waves as high as 40 feet.
It landed 27 miles from the missile-tracking ship Marshal Krylov, which then used two helicopters to drop a diver to cut loose the parachute. A little less than three hours later, the ship used a steel net from booms and snagged the capsule as it drifted alongside.
Then it was time to celebrate.
The Krylov docked in Seattle the next day.
There was one glitch.
After “a rousing bash,” writes Rudman, the “admiral’s mood turned suddenly sour.”
He told Walsh that he and his crew wanted to get paid for retrieving the space capsule, “that he was angry, and would not permit the capsule to be unloaded the following morning.”
In fact, the admiral threatened to take the ship out of Seattle.
Walsh’s sister, Toni, told Rudman, “Bob and the admiral went back and forth, and I don’t know how Bob did it, but he convinced the admiral not to take the ship away.”
On Friday, Nov. 27, the capsule was part of the Bon Marché holiday parade.
A Boeing engineer who attended the parade was quoted, “This is real history. It was beautiful.”
The Krylov’s crew of 450 were hosted for Thanksgiving dinners at various Seattle homes.
Two chartered Aeroflot jets arrived from Russia with 330 passengers for a “Russian-American Business Opportunity Conference.”
The mission did get one bit of negative coverage in the press.
It was from Mikhail Alexseev, a former Soviet journalist living in Seattle.
He wrote in this paper that all was not what it seemed.
The Russians who put together the project, he said, “want the monopoly of contacts with the powerful people in the Seattle area. In Russia, those contacts are a great source of power. They do not want to share it with others.”
Walsh responded in a letter to the editor about Alexseev, “Has he ever shot a space capsule around the world or been able to help his country (we assume Russia is still his country) with so much visibility and economic impact?”
But all that is history.
It didn’t seem to matter much in the end. Glasnost feels a lot longer than 25 years ago.
(Through Jan. 21, the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma is showing, “Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest.”)