The CIA Once Used A Giant Claw Machine To Access A USSR Submarine - It Went Exactly How You'd Think

Who hasn’t experienced the frustration of plunking down a quarter to guide a metal claw toward a stuffed prize, only to lose everything? In CIA Project AZORIAN, the government spent around $800 million and six years to grab their own prize with a claw: the K-129 wreck, a Soviet nuclear submarine on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in what became known as the K-129 conspiracy.

The CIA plan to retrieve a Soviet sub was almost impossible: they had to design an enormous ship with a giant claw capable of retrieving a submarine three miles underwater. But the Soviet submarine K-129 carried valuable Cold War secrets, so President Nixon approved Project AZORIAN. 

The secret plot involved Howard Hughes, valuable manganese nodules, a close call with a Soviet ship, and an elaborate break-in. It almost sounds like the plot from a James Bond movie, but Project AZORIAN is completely true.


  • It Started When, In The Middle Of The Cold War, A Soviet Submarine Disappeared

    In 1968, in the heat of the Cold War, the Soviet submarine K-129 disappeared in the Pacific Ocean. It was carrying a crew of 98 men, three nuclear missiles, and secret Soviet documents. The Soviets searched for the missing vessel in the vast Pacific, but it seemed lost forever.

    In August of 1968, while the Republicans were nominating Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was falling into chaos, the United States located the missing submarine nearly 17,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific. And the CIA decided to recover it.

  • The Submarine Sank In A Remote Part Of The Pacific, But It Was A Rich Prize

    The Submarine Sank In A Remote Part Of The Pacific, But It Was A Rich Prize
    Photo: Enemenemu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    K-129 rested on the seabed in a nearly deserted part of the Pacific. It was over 1,000 miles from Soviet soil and 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii. And no one knew if it was even possible to pull the submarine up from the seafloor – nothing like it had ever been attempted before. But the allure of Soviet intelligence, including possible cryptographic equipment to decipher Soviet codes, was too rich to leave.

    The CIA named their top-secret plan to recover the Soviet submarine Project AZORIAN, and they set to work figuring out the engineering puzzle of recovering K-129. It took six years and half a billion dollars before the project saw a hint of success.

  • Project AZORIAN Was Almost Impossible

    Project AZORIAN Was Almost Impossible
    Photo: Fry1989 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    From the beginning, the CIA knew the task was daunting. The submarine was three miles below the surface of the ocean, and it weighed 2,000 tons. It was the equivalent of standing on the top of the Empire State Building and trying to pick up a car full of gold from the street below. Except with a lot more water.

    On top of that, the project had to be absolutely secret at a time when the Soviet Union was monitoring every move by the US government. And it had to occur in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where it would be impossible to disguise the enormous ship necessary to recover the submarine.

  • The CIA Teamed Up With Howard Hughes To Build A Massive Ship

    The CIA Teamed Up With Howard Hughes To Build A Massive Ship
    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The CIA knew they needed a cover story if they were going to deploy an enormous ship in the middle of the Pacific without the Soviets asking questions. And they came up with the perfect idea. They’d tell the world that Howard Hughes was mining the ocean for “manganese nodules.”

    Howard Hughes already had a reputation as an eccentric businessman, and he agreed to help the CIA with Project AZORIAN. So the CIA spent years producing fake press releases and events, as well as fronting companies promoting Hughes and the exotic ocean-mining rush. 

  • The Massive Glomar Explorer Hid The Recovery Equipment Under Water

    The Massive Glomar Explorer Hid The Recovery Equipment Under Water
    Photo: TedQuackenbush / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The CIA spent four years building an enormous ship to recover the submarine. It was called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, and it looked the part of a deep-sea mining ship. The Glomar Explorer had a massive derrick sitting on top, much like an oil-drilling rig. Beneath the water, the underside of the ship opened to reveal a massive claw-like capture machine to grasp the submarine. The entire sunken vessel would fit into the interior docking well.

    The elaborate design of the ship made it possible to conduct the entire recovery operation underwater, concealed from ships, aircraft, and spy satellites. 

  • In 1974, The Glomar Explorer Was Finally Ready To Recover The Submarine

    In 1974, The Glomar Explorer Was Finally Ready To Recover The Submarine
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The ship was too large to hide, but the cover story successfully concealed the true purpose of the Glomar Explorer – at first. When the Glomar Explorer launched, it was given a public inauguration and a champagne christening ceremony. Then it set off on the long voyage around the tip of South America, since the ship was too big to fit through the Panama Canal.

    In June of 1974, the Glomar Explorer departed from Long Beach, California, for the voyage to the K-129 recovery site. But the last three miles would be the most difficult: lifting the submarine from the seafloor.