My obsession with custom mechanical keyboards is well-established at this point. I don’t technically need more keyboards. So, if I’m going to add to my collection, I want to make sure it’s something distinctive and cool. I began making plans some months ago for a particularly fun keyboard build–a homage to NASA and retro computing. The result is one of the most satisfying (and beautiful) typing experiences I’ve ever had.
There was a time when every keyboard was mechanical, but there weren’t as many of them. Back in the Apollo era, NASA used IBM System/360 mainframe computers with some interesting keyboards. These systems, which first launched in 1964, sold for between $133,000 and $5.5 million. The System/360 was used to receive data from spaceflights and translate it into useful information for flight controllers.
The main operator console of a System/360 had a console typewriter with a lovely keyboard. It had tall, blue keycaps on a steeply inclined case. In modern parlance, we’d call this a high-profile case. Of course, it was part of a giant typewriter hooked up to a very expensive mainframe computer.
A System/360 keyboard at the Computer History Museum.
This keyboard only exists today in museums, but I always thought it might be fun to build something with a similar vibe. I started making plans to do just that last year, knowing it would be impractical to make an exact replica of the System/360 keyboard. I intended to make something with a similar feel that was actually useful as a “daily driver” board. Because of the nature of custom keyboard group buys, my plan has only recently come to fruition.
The first piece of the puzzle, and the one that set me on the path to building my NASA board, was a keycap group buy last summer. In a group buy, you pay your money to an organizer, who then submits a large order to a manufacturer. It’s the only way to get these niche products made. This group buy was run by Massdrop, and the keycaps are called Godspeed SA.
Godspeed SA comes from designer “MiTo,” who has done a few other popular keysets in the past. Godspeed was ideal for my purposes because it’s NASA-themed and in the right profile. It has the cream and blue colorway of the Apollo program along with cool novelty keys modeled after real controls in the spacecrafts. It’s got roll, pitch, orbit, deploy, cospar, stage, and many more. There are also some fun ones like “RIP JEB,” a reference to Kerbal Space Program.
Importantly, Godspeed is an “SA” profile keyset. That’s a close match for the tall keycaps on IBM’s old beam spring keyboards, like the System/360. These caps are manufactured by Signature Plastics in ABS plastic. The legends are doubleshot, meaning they’re also ABS from a separate mold. They make the legend on a lattice, then mold the rest of the keycap around it. Unlike printed or laser-etched legends, these will never fade. You do get a little shine from long-term use, but doubleshot ABS is best if you want the freedom to choose any keycap colors.
I had the keycaps on order for a few months before I came across a group buy for the right keyboard case early this year. The M65-A has a hefty aluminum design with a high-profile incline, and the large bezel around the keys gives it the right “industrial” feel. The System/360 keyboard was small with a rather large case, too. Nothing with those same proportions exists right now and wouldn’t be practical anyway, but the M65-A feels like a modern take on this shape.
The most important aspect to me when choosing the M65-A was the compact layout, which is similar to several other boards I’ve built. This is a 65% keyboard. So, it has all the alphas, the modifiers, number row, arrows, and an extra column of keys on the right above the arrows. It’s the right layout for me personally, and it’s also vaguely similar to the System/360 console keyboard.
The M65-A is not designed to be portable — in fact, it’s anti-portable, with the thick aluminum construction and a brass weight that screws into the bottom. You set this keyboard down and it doesn’t move. There are two bottom panel options; one aluminum and one milled nylon for LED underglow. I went with the nylon base out of curiosity as I’ve never seen anyone else do this.
The M65-A was conceived of by Australian designer RAMA to use the JC65 PCB from US-based Keyclack. As a piece of hardware, the M65-A is striking. I reached out to the designer to see how this device came to be. According to RAMA, the design process took 1-2 weeks of iterative improvements in CAD. There were material renders, white form renders, and multiple rounds of critique to come up with the final design.
RAMA notes the M65-A is intended to be “loud” and “monolithic,” which are both very accurate descriptors. This keyboard stands out in any environment, and it’s as beautiful inside as it is on the outside. There are chamfered edges on the inside of the case where no one will ever see them except you. That kind of attention to detail is something you don’t often see in consumer electronics.
Adding to the weighty package, the M65-A offered an option for a brass switch plate. Not only does it look cool, but the addition of gold coloring also helps me justify the NASA intent a bit. NASA uses gold mylar as an insulator, and brass has a similar luster.
Building the Keyboard
As with other keyboard projects I’ve written about, putting the M65-A together required that I spend some quality time with a soldering iron. Since the PCB has diodes and resistors already surface-mounted, the switches and optional LEDs are all that need to be soldered. That’s still well over 100 solder points at a minimum, though.
It started as a pile of parts.
One of the advantages of building your own keyboard is that you can choose from an ever-increasing number of switches. For this build, I decided to use one of my favorite switches, 67g Zealios. These are medium weight tactile switches. As a bonus, these switches have transparent housings that allow the PCB’s underlighting to shine through. These RGB lights can be set to whatever color you want, but that’s not a necessary element of the build for me (it’s just for fun).
The first step in getting this board assembled is to add the stabilizers, which are PCB mounted Cherry style. I didn’t use the included stabilizers because I wanted to keep to my theme. I opted for transparent plastic stabilizers with gold wires, which are made by Zeal PC, the same as the switches. They also screw into the PCB for added stability, whereas most stabilizers just clip in. Next, it was time to slot all the switches into the brass plate and confirm placement of the bottom row. The JC65 supports several different layouts, so it’s important to get them plugged into the right spots. Otherwise, your keycaps might not fit. After dropping in a few switches, I decided to put on gloves. As you can probably see in the photos, the brass plate has a mirror finish that picks up fingerprints very well.
With my layout confirmed, I had to make sure all the switches were lined up with the holes on the PCB and give it a good push to seat them. If you solder switches into a PCB without pushing them down all the way, the board won’t line up correctly in the case. It’s also a good idea to make sure none of the pins you’re going to solder have been bent before you begin soldering.
Soldering this board was a straightforward experience. Each switch has two solder points, and I didn’t add in-switch LEDs. Each pin just needs a few seconds of heat as the solder is applied, and it’s done. I always make it a point to do a switch in each corner and one in the middle, then test the board to make sure it’s working. In this case, the test was a success and I pressed onward to finish all the switches in about 30 minutes.
My soldering skills are improving.
My favorite part of this build was assembling the case, which again, has staggeringly good build quality. The plate mounts to the top portion with 10 M3 screws. Then, there are six more that hold the bottom panel (in this case, milled nylon) in place. The brass weight attaches with four more screws. It’s solid as a rock.
Beautiful inside and out.
This is a fully programmable board, as are all custom kits. That means you can change the layout and function layers however you like. Programming the M65-A is handled with a desktop program called BootMapper. It runs the ps2avrGB firmware, which I’ve seen on a few boards in the past. It doesn’t have as many features as QMK, which I used on my Tron-themed build, but it’s easier to configure. Just open the program, download the layout, and press the key you want to remap. There are multiple function layers, all of which you can also customize.
Underglow shines through the switches.
The M65-A with Godspeed caps looks fantastic, and I think it’s a suitable homage to classic NASA. The colorway is great, and I love the novelty caps. The keyboard is an absolute beast — a heavy piece of equipment that could crush lesser keyboards, as well as unsuspecting toes if dropped. The board with keycaps tips the scale at 3 pounds 7 ounces (about 1.56 kilograms).
Typing on the board feels great. The brass plate gives the keys a little more rebound than aluminum and muffles the sound. My only concern is that it’s really tall. SA caps are the tallest profile available, and that top row is just a bit of a reach. The nylon base is an interesting feature, but I do find myself wishing I’d gotten the aluminum instead. Underlighting isn’t that important to me, but I let my curiosity get the better of me. I mean, if the M65-A looks and feels this good with the nylon base, would the all-metal case be even more impressive? Probably.
Should you be smitten with the M65-A, keep an eye out for another group buy later this year. RAMA says he’s working on a few design tweaks and refinements, and there will likely be an option for QMK firmware next time. Like all custom kits, it’ll be spendy. Without keycaps and switches, and assuming nothing changes from the first round, you’re looking at around $300.