Imagine designing and manufacturing a cutting-edge mechanical system
without the benefit of today's computer power and having just one chance to
get it right, all under a veil of secrecy. The CIA's secret operation was
known as Project Azorian. The task (assigned to Global Marine Development
Inc) was to build a custom spy ship, fitted with an at-sea docking system
capable of lifting a sunken Russian submarine, with atomic missiles, from 3
miles beneath the sea.
When a Russian K-129 was lost in April of 1968, the CIA began an elaborate intelligence gathering mission. The result was the Glomar Explorer, completed in 1974. So as not to alert the Soviets, the CIA enlisted the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. He provided the cover story, telling the media the Glomar Explorer's purpose was to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor.
David Sharp, the CIA head of systems recovery on Glomar, has written a book titled "The CIA's Greatest Covert Operation". He describes the dangers and challenges of the project. He writes that the hydrodynamic analyses of the ship's docking system was the most complex and frustrating. "The problem we were trying to solve was how best to capture a large body - swinging at the end of a string of pipe about 110 feet below the ship - so it could be raised, under control, into the well of the ship." The roll and pitch of the ship was an added complication.
Designers worked extensively with scale models to solve what they saw as the "three body dynamics problem" - the surface ship, the pipe string and claw. The challenges presented by Project Azorian resulted in a number of major and mechanical innovations and advancements, according to ASME (The American Society of Mechanical Engineers).
To say the intelligence operation was tense is an understatement. The ship's maneuvers had to be performed under close surveillance by Soviet manned ships, who failed to detect the lift. The many models and analyses did little to prepare the Glomar crew for the real thing. The impact alone between the submarine and the docking legs was a shock. Experiencing first hand the physical blows and vibrations during the operation drove home the reality of the strain on the ship's system.
Although the system's claw successfully grabbed the 2000 lb submarine, they lost a large portion of the hull when part of the complex grapple failed, 9,000 ft from the surface. It was rumored that the lost section contained the most sought after items, the code book and nuclear missiles. Later, reports indicated that two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines were recovered. The bodies of six Soviet submariners were also brought up with the vessel and given a formal burial at sea.
In 1997, the Glomar Explorer was taken to Mobile, AL to be converted to a deep sea drilling ship. In 2015, the 51,000 ton Glomar Explorer was sold to an unknown buyer for scrap.
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