The crazy CIA ship that became an engineering historical landmark


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!”


And Charlie Stross tells the rest of the story in The Jennifer Morgue. (Supernatural spy novel. Highly recommend it.)


Thanks for the obligatory Stross reference. Back in June the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had a History of Spying exhibit with artifacts from the real Hughes Glomar Explorer.

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Any chance Project Azorian is related to Gozer the Gozarian? Because that would be kinda cool…

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.


In the Radiolab story, the idea was floated through the Soviet hierarchy but dismissed because, come on, that would be nuts. Which just makes it all the better.


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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The Most Expensive Intelligence Operation Ever ® will soon be the Utah Data Center.

And it will have stopped, er, zero terrorist attacks.

This is a real thing… I thought it was part of Charlie’s diseased imagination… Wow!

To be fair, Project Azorian stopped zero terrorist attacks as well.

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Only kind of worked?

We don’t really know what they brought up. It may have given them any number of samples of state of the art Soviet military technology. That it worked at all makes it worthwhile.

Apparently a couple of Soviet officers saw the news reports about the Glomar Explorer, and where it was going to be “mining”, and immediately figured it out, but couldn’t convince their superiors, who naturally thought the idea was too complicated/insane to even try-- “the Americans are not that crazy!”

Reminds of that line you always hear in Hollywood caper movies, where someone says “this is so crazy it just might work!”

You know of Operation Ivy Bells?

The cover story was particularly good. There were manganese nodules on the deep sea bed. If you hoovered these up then you got a whole bunch of other materials with them. This would mean that some metals such as Zirconium would tumble in price. When I was at college, people had done their doctorate in metallurgy on zirconium steels, anticipating that a small addition of zirconium might be worthwhile at the new price…


Manganese nodule mining is sort of getting going again - and with both the Russians and Lockheed involved in international waters.


I am sure it is actually just mining…

My dad used to have a small sailboat that he kept in a marina not far from the ship. We used to pass it going out and coming back in. The teen shutterbug in me got a few shots of it. It was moored right near the twin drawbridges in LA (seen in a lot of movies, and location of Tony Scott’s swansong swan dive). The hangar that used to house the Spruce Goose was there too, even with a little control tower attached. At the time we had no clue what was in it.

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