The crazy CIA ship that became an engineering historical landmark

This is the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship that's as important to the history of engineering as it is to the history of insanely crazy Cold War CIA schemes.

In 1970s, the CIA used this ship to capture a sunken Russian nuclear submarine — i.e., lifting a 2000-ton object from a depth of three miles to the surface. It was the most expensive intelligence operation ever and it only kind of worked.

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  1. I heard this story recently on NPR and it's a pretty fascinating tale. As for characterizing it as "the most expensive intelligence operation ever and it only kind of worked." I would actually say "it was the most expensive intelligence operation we know about, and it actually kind of worked - maybe more than we know!"

  2. Cold war thinking may have been crazy, but it did show a remarkable amount of ambition and follow through. From what I can tell, the Soviets never really had a clue what this was all about, which is amazing when you consider how many people (at a public company!) were involved and how big the project was in general. It's not like there was a lack of spies on either side.

    Of course the extreme paranoia that kept the Soviets in the dark also kind of doomed the project. First when they were scared off before finishing the site survey by a curious Soviet vessel (and who wouldn't be curious, the Glomar Explorer is a freaking cool ship), and then again when they rushed the actual retrieval operation for the same reason.

  3. One other interesting thing not mentioned in the article is that the ship is still in operation, privately owned, doing work as a drillship, which was basically its cover in the operation!

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