Cold War spy ship finds new life as workhorse
November 10, 1996
(CNN) -- Midnight covert operations at sea. A lost nuclear submarine. An eccentric and reclusive billionaire. These aren't elements from a Cold War spy novel, but from the real-life history of a massive ship that is now getting a new lease on life.
The Glomar Explorer is an impressive vessel, 618 feet long and with a giant cargo claw that can lift thousands of tons from the ocean floor. It was built for tycoon Howard Hughes, who would use it to pluck minerals from the ocean floor. Or so the world was told.
In 1968, a Soviet submarine, designated K129, blew up and sank. It lay nearly 20,000 feet below the ocean's surface until 1974, when the CIA used the Explorer to recover part of the sub.
Though the ship's cover was blown, the mission was reportedly an intelligence coup, recovering Soviet nuclear warheads and code books and hoisting large portions of the sub -- all of it, by some accounts -- into the ship's massive "moon well."
The crew also recovered the remains of six Soviet sailors, who were given a solemn, traditional burial at sea with a U.S. Navy chaplain presiding. Details of the burial -- and a video that recorded the ceremony -- were not revealed to the Soviet or Russian government until 1992, when then-CIA director Robert Gates visited Moscow. (645K/15 sec. QuickTime movie of the burial)
Like many cold warriors, the Glomar Explorer has received new orders.
The Explorer, which resembles a floating oil derrick, will become just that. Global Marine, the company that originally built the ship for the U.S. Navy, is now converting it into a mobile drilling platform. New drilling ships cost $270 million; retrofitting the Explorer is expected to save $100 million.
Eleven thousand tons of metal will be stripped from the Explorer's decks, but some of the shroud of secrecy remains. Global Marine's Tom Covellone is terse: "Our contract with the government is such that we can't discuss its history."
Correspondent Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.
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