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Glomar Explorer

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NameGSF Explorer
OwnerGlobal Marine Development Inc.
OperatorCentral Intelligence Agency
Port of registryPort Vila, Vanuatu
Cost>$350 million (1974) (>$1.68 billion in 2023 dollars.[2])
Laid down1971
Launched4 November 1972
United States
NameHughes Glomar Explorer
NamesakeHoward Hughes
BuilderSun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.
Launched4 November 1972
In service1 July 1973
FateScrapped, 2015
General characteristics
Displacement50,500 long tons (51,310 t) light
Length619 ft (189 m)
Beam116 ft (35 m)
Draft38 ft (12 m)
  • Diesel-electric
  • 5 × Nordberg 16-cylinder diesel engines driving 4,160 V AC generators turning 6 × 2,200 hp (1.6 MW) DC shaft motors, twin shafts
Speed10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)

GSF Explorer, formerly USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer (T-AG-193), was a deep-sea drillship platform built for Project Azorian, the secret 1974 effort by the United States Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division to recover the Soviet submarine K-129.[3][4]



The ship was built as Hughes Glomar Explorer in 1971 and 1972 by Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. for more than US$350 million (about $1.7 billion in 2023) at the direction of Howard Hughes for use by his company, Global Marine Development Inc.[5] It began operation on 20 June 1974.

The ship's construction required a purpose built crane ship, Sun 800, to lift its 630-ton gimbal into place.[6]

Hughes told the media that the ship's purpose was to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor. This marine geology cover story became surprisingly influential, causing many others to examine the idea.

Project Azorian


The Soviet diesel-electric submarine K-129 sank in the Pacific Ocean 1,560 miles (2,510 km) NW of Hawaii,[7] on 8 March 1968. The USS Halibut identified the wreck site and the CIA crafted an elaborate and highly secret plan to recover the submarine for intelligence purposes. As K-129 had sunk in very deep water, at a depth of 16,500 feet (3 miles or 5 kilometres), a large ship was required for the recovery operation. Such a vessel would be detected easily by Soviet vessels, which might then interfere with the operation, so an elaborate cover story was developed. The CIA contacted Hughes, who agreed to help.[8]

In 1974, the ship recovered a portion of K-129, but as the section was being lifted to the surface, a mechanical failure in the grapple caused two-thirds of the recovered section to break off.[9] This lost section is said to have held many of the most-sought items, including the code book and nuclear missiles. The recovered section held two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines, along with the bodies of six Soviet submariners, who were given a formal, filmed burial at sea.[citation needed]

The operation became public in February 1975 when the Los Angeles Times published a story about "Project Jennifer". Other news organizations, including The New York Times, added details. The CIA declined to either confirm or deny the reports, a tactic that became known as the Glomar response and subsequently used to confront all manner of journalistic and public inquiry, including Freedom of Information Act requests.[10] The actual name, Project Azorian, became public only in 2010.

The publication Red Star Rogue (2005) by Kenneth Sewell claims "Project Jennifer" recovered virtually all of K-129 from the ocean floor.[11][12] Sewell states, "[D]espite an elaborate cover-up and the eventual claim that Project Jennifer had been a failure, most of K-129 and the remains of the crew were, in fact, raised from the bottom of the Pacific and brought into the Glomar Explorer".[N 1]

A subsequent movie and book by Michael White and Norman Polmar (Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129) revealed testimony from on-site crewmen as well as black and white video of the actual recovery operation. These sources indicate that only the forward 38 ft (12 m) of the submarine were recovered.

After Project Azorian



Glomar Explorer mothballed in Suisun Bay, California, during June 1993.

While the ship had an enormous lifting capacity, there was little interest in operating the vessel because of her great cost. From March to June 1976, the General Services Administration (GSA) published advertisements inviting businesses to submit proposals for leasing the ship.[14] By the end of four months, GSA had received a total of seven bids, including a US$2 offer submitted by Braden Ryan, a Lincoln, Nebraska college student,[15] and a US$1.98 million offer ($8.25 million in 2023) from a man who said he planned to seek a government contract to salvage the nuclear reactors of two United States submarines. The Lockheed Missile and Space Company submitted a US$3 million ($12.51 million in 2023), two-year lease proposal contingent upon the company's ability to secure financing. GSA had already extended the bid deadline twice to allow Lockheed to find financial backers for its project without success and the agency concluded there was no reason to believe this would change during the near future.

Although the scientific community rallied to the defense of Hughes Glomar Explorer, urging the president to maintain the ship as a national asset, no agency or department of the government wanted to assume the maintenance and operating cost.[16] Subsequently, during September 1976, the GSA transferred Hughes Glomar Explorer to the Navy for storage, and during January 1977, after it was prepared for dry docking at a cost of more than two million dollars, the ship became part of the Navy's Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet.[17]

Lease, sale and disposal


In September 1978, Ocean Minerals Company consortium of Mountain View, California, announced it had leased Hughes Glomar Explorer and that in November would begin testing a prototype deep-sea mining system in the Pacific Ocean. The consortium included subsidiaries of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana, Royal Dutch Shell, and Boskalis Westminster Group NV of the Netherlands. The consortium's prime contractor was the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company.

In late 1996, the ship was towed from the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay to San Francisco Bay, where much of the existing rig structure around the moon pool, including the massive gimbal was removed.[18] Following this, she was towed North to Portland, Oregon, for drydocking, closing up much of the submarine-sized moon pool, and engine repairs, among other things.

In June 1997, the ship departed Portland under its own power and sailed around South America and up to Atlantic Marine's shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, for conversion to a dynamically positioned deep sea drilling ship, capable of drilling in waters of 7,500 feet (2,300 m) and, with some modification, up to 11,500 feet (3,500 m), which was 2,000 feet (610 m) deeper than any other existing rig at the time. The conversion cost more than $180 million ($314 million in 2023) and was completed during the first quarter of 1998.[citation needed]

The conversion of the vessel from 1996 to 1998 was the start of a 30-year lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling at a cost of US$1 million per year ($1.7 million per year in 2023). Global Marine merged with Santa Fe International Corporation during 2001 to become GlobalSantaFe Corporation, which merged with Transocean in November 2007 and operated the vessel as GSF Explorer.[citation needed]

In 2010, Transocean bought the vessel for a US$15 million ($20 million in 2023) in cash.[19]

The vessel was reflagged from Houston to Port Vila, Vanuatu, in the third quarter of 2013.[20]

During her 18-year drilling career, she worked in the Gulf Of Mexico, Nigeria, the Black Sea, Angola, Indonesia and India, with various shipyards and port visits along the way, with numerous oil company clients. Crew members fondly referred to her as "The Mothership".

Transocean announced in April 2015 that the ship would be scrapped.[21] The ship arrived at the ship breakers at Zhoushan, China, on 5 June 2015.[22]

See also





  1. ^ Minutes of the Sixth Plenary Session, USRJC, Moscow, 31 August 1993.[13]


  1. ^ a b c "ABS Record: GSF Explorer." Archived 19 February 2018 at the Wayback Machine American Bureau of Shipping, 2010. Retrieved: 25 December 2010.
  2. ^ Johnston, Louis; Williamson, Samuel H. (2023). "What Was the U.S. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 30 November 2023. United States Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the MeasuringWorth series.
  3. ^ Burleson 1997, p. 52.
  4. ^ "Mysteries of the Deep: Raising Sunken Ships: The Glomar Explorer." Archived 16 October 2015 at the Wayback Machine Scientific American Frontiers (PBS), p. 2. Retrieved: 25 December 2010.
  5. ^ Snieckus, Darius. "...and another thing... An offshore Hughes who... " OilOnline, 1 November 2001. Retrieved: 25 December 2010.
  6. ^ "The Biggest Crane Barge on the Baltimore Bridge Project Has a CIA Past". The Maritime Executive. 31 March 2024. Archived from the original on 1 April 2024. Retrieved 1 April 2024.
  7. ^ "GWU National Security Archive". Archived from the original on 2 July 2012. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  8. ^ Phelan, James. "An Easy Burglary Led to the Disclosure of Hughes-C.I.A. Plan to Salvage Soviet Sub". The New York Times, 27 March 1975, p. 18.
  9. ^ Sontag et al. 1998, p. 196.
  10. ^ "Neither Confirm Nor Deny". Radiolab. Radiolab, WNYC. 12 February 2014. Archived from the original on 25 February 2014. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
  11. ^ Sewell 2005, pp. 128, 148.
  12. ^ Podvig 2001, p. 243.
  13. ^ Sewell 2005, pp. 131, 261.
  14. ^ "Notice of Availability for Donation of the Test Craft Ex-Sea Shadow (IX-529) and Hughes Mining Barge (HMB-1)." Archived 4 June 2021 at the Wayback Machine Federal Register, Volume 71, Number 178, 14 September 2006, p. 54276.
  15. ^ Dean, Josh (2018). The Taking of K-129 : How the CIA used Howard Hughes to steal a Russian sub in the most daring covert operation in history. Dutton Caliber. ISBN 978-1101984451.
  16. ^ Toppan, Andrew. "The Hughes Glomar Explorer's Mission." Archived 7 April 2023 at the Wayback Machine the-kgb.com. Retrieved: 25 December 2010.
  17. ^ Pike, John. "Project Jennifer: Hughes Glomar Explorer." Archived 16 May 2021 at the Wayback Machine Intelligence Resource Program via fas.org, 16 February 2010. Retrieved: 25 December 2010.
  18. ^ Nolte, Carl (6 November 1996). "Spy Ship Gets New Life / Glomar Explorer to become a deep-sea drilling rig". SFGATE. Archived from the original on 9 February 2022. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
  19. ^ "Transocean 10Q SEC Filing on 4 August 2010." Archived 7 April 2023 at the Wayback Machinebrand.edgar-online.com. Retrieved: 25 December 2010.
  20. ^ rigzone.com Archived 17 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 17 December 2013.
  21. ^ "Transocean’s new fleet status, scraps GSF Explorer" Archived 15 June 2024 at the Wayback Machine Offshore Engineer Retrieved: 17 April 2015.
  22. ^ Schneider, George (November 2015). "Significant Scrapping" (PDF). Journal of the World Ship Society. 69 (11): 646. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 August 2019. Retrieved 13 November 2023.