Howard Hughes and the CIA project to raise lost Soviet submarine in early 1970s.
The Glomar Explorer, once the world’s most advanced deep water drill ship, ended up in a scrap yard in Zhoushan, China, in 2015. But it left behind two remarkable offshore exploration histories. One was secret.
Considered the pioneer of all modern drill ships, Glomar Explorer was decades ahead of its time working at extreme depths for the U.S. offshore petroleum industry. Relaunched in 1998 as the latest offshore technological phenomenon, Glomar Explorer had begun in 1972 as a secret project of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The ship’s future career with the CIA began on March 8, 1968, when the U.S.S.R. ballistic missile submarine K-129 mysteriously sank somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii. Wreckage of the lost sub would never be found – or so it seemed. Unknown to the Soviets, sophisticated U.S. Navy sonar technology located the K-129 on the seabed 16,500 feet deep. But that depth was unreachable by any known technology (see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench).
The K-129 sinking presented the CIA with a staggering espionage opportunity. President Richard Nixon approved a top-secret operation to attempt raising the vessel – intact – from the ocean floor. Secretive billionaire Howard Hughes Jr. of Hughes Tool Company joined the mission, code-named Project Azorian (mistakenly called Project Jennifer in news media accounts). The recovery effort would involve years of deception. Deep ocean mining would be the cover story for construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer.
CIA Cover Story: Ocean Mining
Scientists and venture capitalists had long seen potential in ocean mining, but when Hughes appeared to take on the challenge, the world took notice. The well-publicized plan described harvesting magnesium nodules from record depths with a custom-built ship that would push engineering technology to new limits, typical of Hughes’ style. The story spread.
But from concept to launch, the Hughes Glomar Explorer really had only one purpose: raise the sunken Soviet Golf-II class submarine from 1968 – and any ballistic missiles. In 1972, construction began in a Delaware River dry-dock south of Philadelphia. There, the $350 million (about $1.4 billion in 2018), Hughes’ high-tech ship was ostensibly built to mine the sea floor. Two years later, on August 8, 1974, the “magnesium mining vessel” secretly raised part of the 2,000-ton K-129 through a hidden well opening in the hull and a “claw” of mechanically articulated fingers that used sea water as a hydraulic fluid. But news about Project Azorian leaked within six months.
On February 7, 1974, the. Los Angeles Times broke the story: “CIA Salvage Ship Brought Up Part Of Soviet Sub Lost In 1968, Failed To Raise Atom Missiles.” The article, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, abruptly ended the advanced vessel’s spying career. In 1976, the federal government transferred the Hughes Glomar Explorer to the Navy for an extensive $2 million preparation for storage in dry dock. With its CIA days over, Hughes Glomar Explorer spent almost two decades mothballed at Suisun Bay, California.
Pioneer of Modern Drill Ships
Thirty-years after K-129 sank and after a $180 million shipyard conversion, the Glomar Explorer emerged in the late 1990s and began its career as a record-setting deep water drill ship. Launched on January 30, 1998, on its first contract for Chevron and Texaco, the former spy vessel spudded a well 7,718 feet below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface — a world record at the time.
London-based Global Marine had converted the CIA vessel for commercial use. The company hired Electronic Power Design of Houston, Texas, to work on the advanced electrical system. After almost 20 years in storage, condition of equipment inside the ship surprised Electronic Power Design CEO John Janik. “Everything was just as the CIA had left it,” Janik explained, “down to the bowls on the counter and the knives hanging in the kitchen. Even though all the systems were intact, this was by no means an ordinary ship.”
Janik noted in 2015 for The Maritime Executive that his company’s retrofit was “a tough job because the ship’s wiring was unlike anything we had ever seen before,” although preservation had been helped by nitrogen pumped into the ship’s interior for two decades. Conversion work later included a Mobile, Alabama, shipyard adding a derrick, drilling equipment, and 11 positioning thrusters capable of a combined 35,200 horsepower.
Completed in 1998 as the world’s largest drillship, Glomar Explorer began a long-term lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling for $1 million per year. The ship spent the next 17 years drilling deep water sites around the world, including Africa’s Nigerian delta, the Black Sea, offshore Angola, Indonesia, Malta, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Following a series of corporate mergers, Glomar Explorer became part of the largest offshore drilling contractor, the Swiss company Transocean Ltd. When it entered that company’s fleet, the ship was renamed GSF Explorer, and in 2013 was re-flagged from Houston to the South Pacific’s Port Vila in Vanuatu.
When GSF Explorer arrived at the Chinese ship breaker’s yard in 2015, many offshore industry trade publications took notice of the ship’s demise after years of exceptional deep drilling service. The ship was “decades ahead of its time and the pioneer of all modern drill ships,” concluded Electronic Power Design’s CEO in The Maritime Executive article. “It broke all the records for working at unimaginable depths and should be remembered as a technological phenomenon.”
Soon after the former Glomar Explorer was sold for scrap, Tom Speight of the engineering firm O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun, reflected in a company post, “This is a shame, not only because of the ship’s nearly unbelievable history, but also because in 2006 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated this technologically remarkable ship a historic mechanical engineering landmark.”
The ASME award ceremony, which took place on July 20, 2006, in Houston, included members of the original engineering team and ship’s crew among the attendees. Past President Keith Thayer noted the important contributions the ship made to the development of mechanical engineering and innovations in offshore drilling technology.
The historic ship’s name will be forever be linked to the ship’s CIA brief service during the Cold War. For many veteran journalists, the agency’s chronic response to inquiries, “We can neither confirm nor deny,” is still known as the “Glomar response.”
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Secret Offshore History of Drill Ship Glomar Explorer.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/secret-offshore-history-of-the-glomar-explorer. Last Updated: February 12, 2021. Original Published Date: February 8, 2020.