During the height of the Cold War, a Soviet submarine mysteriously sank in the Pacific Ocean. K-129 held a crew of nearly 100 sailors, as well as a full payload of nuclear missiles. Following its loss, the US Navy noted the flurry of Soviet activity dispatched to locate the ship and saw an opportunity to gain access to their rival’s military secrets. They decided to locate and then steal the sub. The fact that this was physically, scientifically, and perhaps legally impossible led the team assigned to the project to — often ad hoc, or accidentally — create, iterate, and apply technologies that would radically change the transportation industry forever.
Author and journalist Josh Dean’s new book The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History tells the story of this projects, which aimed to grab the sub from its resting place — three miles below the surface of the ocean. Spearheaded by the CIA and funded by a top secret black budget, the program required numerous uninvented technologies, an outrageous vehicle to carry and implement them, and a fantastical cover story to keep the Russians and the public in the dark—one that unexpectedly helped jump start the existence of an entire industry.
The ship that the CIA contractors designed was called the Glomar Explorer, and it was like nothing that had been built before. One of the largest ships ever constructed, the central section of its 600-foot-long deck was dominated by an enormous derrick, which could lower 17,000 feet of metal piping down to the bottom of the sea. Its hull concealed a huge claw that could be extended on this three miles of piping to grab the sub, along with a secret, giant-doored cavity capable of retracting, swallowing, and transporting it.