Most new mining technology is now developed by private companies. In the realm of deep sea mining (covered in this blog post), Nautilus Minerals, inc. is currently a leader in the development of remotely operated seafloor mining technology. Although the first commercial seafloor mine lies a year or two in the future, the technology is thought to be in place for the effort, and investors generally see deep sea mining as a viable part of future mining efforts.

Although deep sea mining is now seen as a viable endeavor, this wasn’t always so. Once influential development in early deep sea mining is that of the Huges Glomar Explorer – a high tech ship that conducted a CIA operation disguised as a mining venture. The covert operation helped spur early public interest in deep sea mining despite its true purpose.

Flash back to 1968. The cold war is in full swing. Learning of reports that a Soviet  nuclear armed submarine recently sank in the Pacific, the CIA decided to try to recover the ship and its secrets before the Soviets could. The recovery efforts, which would be carried out  at a depth of 4.8 km, would require the construction of a massive ship. The ship would need to be able to maintain it’s position during recovery operations, lift  the 2,700 ton submarine to the surface, and carry it to a secure location – and all this while avoiding detection by Soviet satellites and spy planes. The submarine would be lifted through trap doors located on the bottom of the ship, allowing operations to remain hidden.

The CIA needed a cover story to prevent suspicion on the part of the Soviets, and it contacted Howard Hughes, an oil scion. His company, Summa Corporation, soon announced that it would be building a 189 meter ship to research the potential of deep sea mining technology.

Ironically, the cover story for the construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, as the ship came to be called, spurred outside investment in deep sea mining technology and helped give birth to the earliest attempts to collect minerals from the seafloor.

A variety of new technologies developed for the recovery operation, would later prove useful to deep sea mining operations. Continuous position stabilization, now ubiquitous in deepwater oil and gas operations, was developed to ensure effective recovery. In addition, a system was developed to bring heavy objects to the surface from great depth. This capability is a critical part of modern deep sea mining efforts.

Six years after the sub sank, the recovery ship was ready. The ship moved above the wreck and commenced recovery operations. Everything seemed to be going well as the sub rose from the sea floor.

Then disaster struck. The Soviet sub broke in half, and only part of it could be recovered. Despite this, the CIA considered the operation a partial success – documents recovered from the sub showed the CIA that the soviet nuclear sub capability was limited.

After the recovery operation, the government sought a private party to lease the ship. Within a short time, the ship was outfitted to carry out actual seafloor mining operations. Although ownership has changed hands many times since then, the ship is still in operation. It has been outfitted as a drillship, and is currently being used by ONGC, an Indian oil company, for exploration in the Bay of Bengal.

Learn more about the role the CIA played in the development of deep sea technology here.