by Norman Polmar and Michael White
However, the prospect of acquiring the one R-21 missile and warhead that appeared to remain intact, and perhaps even some cryptologic material, led the U.S. intelligence community to undertake a highly innovative effort to salvage the forward 130 feet of the submarine. (The roughly 100-foot after section, with the engineering spaces and after torpedo room, had broken off and lay about 100 yards away.)
The Central Intelligence Agency organized and directed the effort. After intensive discussions about how to raise almost 2,000 tons from such depth without tipping off Soviet surveillance, it was decided to (1) employ oil-drilling technology, with a pipe-string lowering a massive capture vehicle, or "claw," to grasp and lift the wreck, and (2) to use a cover story that eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes was attempting to harvest manganese nodules from the seafloor. Ironically—and as expected—the name Hughes immediately attracted world-wide attention!
The project—code-named "Azorian," with the general compartment name "Jennifer" to hide the specific operation—called for a massive salvage ship. It was designed by the firm Global Marine and its subsidiaries and built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Chester, Penn. Sun was known for innovation, having built some of the first supertankers and roll-on/roll-off vehicle cargo ships constructed in the United States and converted the large tanker Manhattan for her two pioneering ice-breaking voyages through the Northwest Passage.
Sun began to build the new ship in May 1971. The design centered on a massive, fully enclosed internal docking well, called the "moon pool," with closable gates across the bottom of the well. This prevented the ship from having a traditional keel—a main center-line structural member running along the bottom.
The ship, which employed technology developed for seafloor oil drilling, certainly appeared to be a deep ocean mining platform. Like a deep-water oil rig, she would take pipe sections stowed on deck and attach them to the top of a "drill string." But instead of lowering a drill head, the drill string was supposedly intended to lower and raise a mining machine that would "vacuum up" manganese nodules from the ocean floor.
The ship's actual mission pushed the technical state of the art in many ways. She would have to remain at a fixed position above the three-mile pipe string despite the strong dynamic forces at work in the North Pacific, even in summer. The capture vehicle to be suspended at the end of a pipe-string weighed 2,000 tons. The combined weight of the vehicle and the sub section would be almost 4,000 tons, and the pipe string would weigh about the same. The entire mechanism would have to align perfectly to enter the bottom of the moon pool. And, of course, the recovery had to be unobservable by Soviet surveillance.
In addition to the moon pool, the ship's most striking engineering features were:
• A dynamic positioning system with bow and stern thrusters to maintain station in a seaway.
• A massive gimbaled platform to isolate the suspended load from the ship's dynamic pitch and roll.
• A hydraulic/pneumatic heave compensation system to prevent the ship's heave (vertical motion) from dynamically affecting the suspended load.
• An extremely powerful hydraulic hoisting system to lower and raise the load.
• Pipe-handling gear to convey pipe sections to and from the heavy-lift system.
• A docking system enabling the loaded capture vehicle to mate with the ship in a dynamic seaway.
Some of these features had previously been incorporated in drill ships, but never on a scale so large. For example, the outer ring of the gimbaled platform was 40 by 40 feet, with four gimbal bearings of unique size and design, each with a capacity of 5,000 tons, to support a total weight of up to 20,000 tons. Similarly, the heave compensation system—essentially a giant spring—required two massive, hydraulic rams to mitigate the effect of heave on the suspended pipe-string.