The Hughes Glomar Explorer, which recovered parts of a sunken Soviet submarine for the Central Intelligence Agency three years ago had its orgins in a scheme to raise fallen Soviet missiles from the ocean floor as long as 15 years ago.
The company given a contract by the Air Force to lift Soviet missiles from the bottom of the pacific is the same company that operated the Glomar Explorer for the CIA. The company is the Global Marine Co. of Los Angeles, which as far back as September, 1962, went to the Air Force with a proposal to recover Soviet missiles using a recovery vessel half the size of the Glomar Explorer.
Under cover of a project that started out with the code name of Sand Dollar, the Air Force scheme to retrieve Soviet missiles was every bit as secret as the CIA's plan to raise the sunken submarine. How long Sand Dollar lasted and how many Soviet missiles it recovered is not known, but sources said it was so successful that it encouraged the CIA to go ahead with its plan to raise the sub.
The missile recovery operation centered on a part of the Central Pacific southwest of Palmyra Atoll in the Line Islands, which lie east of the Marshall Islands and south of the Hawaiian Islands and where the surrounding waters are as deep as 15,000 feet. This is where Soviet nose cones containing their missile guidance systems and dummy warheads ended their 6,000 mile test flights that began in Soviet Asia.
Some of these details are revealed in documents on file with the U.S. Court of Claims, where a secrets ended almost three weeks ago.
Still other details are in documents that Claims Court Trial Judge Francis Browne kept out of the public record but which were seen by The Washington Post. A few others were filled in by sources familiar with the Glomar Explorer and its attempts in the summer of 1974 to raise a Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific with all its crew in 1967.
The suit was brought against the government two years ago by Willard N. Bascom, an oceanographer who had directed for the National Science. Foundation the aborted Mohole Project to drill through the earth's crust to recover rock and sediment samples dating back to the earth's formation.
Bascom claimed that the Glomar Explorer salvaged the Russian submarine using techniques he patented in 1965. Bascom also claimed that he and a company he formed called Ocean Science and Engineering proposed to the Air Force and the CIA in April, the 1962 a method to reise sunken Soviet missiles.
The Air Force and CIA rejected Bascom's proposal, saying they did not think it would work and saying they did not have the money to finance its trial. In September of the same year, Global Marine proposed a scheme to raise the missiles and apparently was awarded a contract to do so before the year ended.
Bascom's case was tried starting April 19 before the Court of Claims, where all cases of patent infringement against the federal government and tried. The trial, ende May 2, is described as the most secret case ever heard by the Court of Claims.
The trial was held in a closed court-room whose location was not posted on the court's bulletin board. Dates and times of the trial were not posted either. Witnesses came to the trial one at a time, leaving by a different door so they would not be seen by the next witness.
There was no bailiff in the case. The stenographer tape-recorded the testimony. The only people outside of Judge Browne and the lawyers for each side who heard the whole case were two "observers," believed to be employees of the CIA.
Two groups of witnesses testified. One group included people who knew Bascom, his work and his proposals to raise the missiles back in 1962.This group is identified in documents in the court's public record. The second witness group was made up of people involved in the Glomar Explorer project to recover the submarine. Their names are nowhere in the public record.
Judge Browne placed a gag order on all prospective witnesses in the case more than a year ago. He later included in the gag order (called a "protective" order) secretaries, stenographers and typists with access to trial testimony and all the documents introduced in the trial.
The documents seen by The Washington Post tell a fascinating tale all their own.
Bascom's 1962 proposal to the Air Force and CIA to raise sunken Soviet missiles describes the use of a ship that sounds remarkably like the Glomar Explorer, which lifted pieces of a Russian submarine that sank in 16,000 feet of water by being able to stay in the same position on the surface for days at a time.
Bascom tells of positioning an unanchored drill ship in the Pacific in 1961 for one month "in spite of high winds and currents" without moving the ship out of position.
Bascom also suggested in his 1962 proposal a "cover story" to disguise the mission of recovering sunken Soviet missiles. He suggested the recovery ship be given the scientific mission of drilling into deep ocean sediment. The cover for the Glomar Explorer was that it was involved in mining manganese and nickel from the ocean floor.
"The search will look like a drilling ship to the public and the outside world," Bascom told the Air Force and CIA. "If at each site visited the ship drills one core hold completely through the soft sediments the results would be enormously valuable scientifically, the cover story would be fulfilled, additional money could be raised and a future for the ship assured."
When the Air Force and CIA turned down Bascom's proposal, he went two years later to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with a proposal to recover space ships falling into the ocean. Bascom made the proposal after the Mercury spacecraft carrying astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom almost sank on splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Some day a capsule with some immensely valuable object aboard will return from space and be lost in the ocean," Bascom said. "It may be a sample of the moon; it may have irreplaceable records aboard or even the body of a astronaut. Public pressure will require that it be recovered."
Bascom's proposals for recovering heavy objects lost on the ocean floor are intriguing. He proposed building a ship that could drag four miles of drill pipe just above the ocean floor at speeds no faster than 2 miles an hour. He proposed attaching sonar and television cameras to the end of the pipe to find the lost object.
Bascom's ship had water jets and opposed propellers in the bow and stern to maintain the same position in the ocean for days. It had an alarm system that would stop the ship when it located a large object on the ocean bottom. He said that at depths of 10,000 feet and greater it would not be hard to find a lost object because at those depths the ocean floor is so smooth and free of rubbish and marine life that a man-made object would stand out.
The way Bascom proposed to recover the lost object was to attach a giant steel "clam-shell" to the end of the drill pipe with grappling hooks fixed to the shell. He proposed pumping water into ballast tanks built into the shell to sink the shell straight down in the water.
Once the clam shell fastened on the lost object, air would be pumped into the ballast tanks and the water forced out. This would make the entire recovery device buoyant and it would rise to the surface carrying the object it had found. Bascom's proposal said this was the only feasible way of retrieving heavy objects from the deep ocean floor.
Judge Browne is due to make his ruling in the case this week. Reports have it that when he makes his ruling the Justice Department will move to put under seal the entire record of the case, even though Bascom probably will appeal the decision if it goes against him.
Meanwhile, the 640-foot glomar Explorer in mothballs in California's Suisun Bay, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers come together. The derrick that held its drill pope has been removed, and its four miles of drill pipe given to the National Science Foundation to use on its real drilling ship the Glomar Challenger.
The ship has been painted Navy gray and been positioned by itself at the end of a line of 148 tankers and freighters in the custody of the maritime Administration. The general Services Administration tried to lease the ship to anybody who could use it, but its upkeep cost scared everybody away. The Glomar Explorer costs $30,000 a day to operate.