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Glomar Explorer

October 21st, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Massive 3+ meters floating model of the Glomar Explorer ship. Features motorized propellers, rudders, bow thrusters, cranes, anchors winch and a grabber with two winches, custom stickers and lights.


Completion date: 18/10/2020
Power: electric (Power Functions)
Remote control: Power Functions
Dimensions: length 390 studs / width 60 studs / height 105 studs
Weight: approx. 60 kg
Suspension: none
Propulsion: 1 x PF L motor
Motors: 3 x PFL motor, 5 x PF M motor

A project inspired and kindly sponsored by TNG Tech, its goal was to re-create the look and – even more importantly – the functionality of the Glomar Explorer ship, a vessel custom-built for CIA’s Project Azorian in early 70’s. At this point it’s inevitable to briefly sum up the history of this project, which is often compared to the moon landing in terms of engineering complexity:

  • in April 1968, at the height of Cold War, the US Navy has observed unusual activity of the Soviet fleet on Pacific, which looked very much like an attempt to locate something without knowing where exactly it is. What the US Navy didn’t know at this point was that the Soviets have lost a nuclear submarine designated K-129. The submarine rapidly sank because of – it is believed today – a leaking missile silo hatch which led to an explosion of the missile fuel.
  • the difficulty of locating a missing submarine without knowing its exact whereabouts is pretty obvious, but there’s a good example of how difficult it is. The US has lost 52 submarines during WW2. How long did it take to find at least one of these? 60 years – all the way until 2005.
  • someone at the US Navy had the brilliant idea of checking recordings from the hydrophone networks that US had placed at the Pacific. It turned out that the hydrophones have, indeed, registered something that sounded very much like a big explosion on March 8th 1968 – and more, it proved possible to locate this explosion within a 5-miles radius.
  • the USS Halibut submarine was dispatched to the location and after 3 weeks of an extensive grid search discovered the remains of the K-129 at the depth of 4,900 meters and proceeded to take 20,000 close-up photos to determine their condition.
  • as it turned out, the K-129’s remains were unusually well preserved. Most submarines implode and get totally destroyed when they reach their crush depth, because that’s where their hulls are no longer able to withstand the difference in pressures between the air inside and the water inside. But the K-129 didn’t implode because it didn’t have any air inside – a rapid hull breach made it fill with water completely before it reached its crush depth.
  • remains of a modern Soviet nuclear submarine presented an incredible opportunity to CIA, who was keen to examine Soviet nuclear missiles and code books. The CIA has therefore taken upon it to recover the remains of the K-129 in one piece (we’re talking about a 100-meters long submarine here).
  • in order to raise the K-129, an unique ship was built from a scratch. It  was the size of an aircraft carrier and it featured a big moon pool in the middle of the hull, housing an enormous 2,000-ton grabber called Clementine by the engineers who developed it (there’s some story here, I’m sure). The moon pool could be closed or open from the bottom, the grabber could be lowered into the ocean and retrieved, and the water could be pumped out of the moon pool to keep its contents dry. The ship was called Glomar Explorer and the mission was dubbed Project Azorian.
  • since it was impossible to build and send to Pacific an aircraft-carrier-sized ship, the CIA cooked up a cover story saying that the ship was built by Howard Hughes for the purpose of experimental mining of the manganese nodules from the ocean’s floor. The Soviets have allegedly been tipped off as to the ship’s actual purpose, but they deemed the plan of raising a submarine from the depth of 4,900 meters to be impossible and ridiculous.
  • the project faced a number of vast challenges, so the Soviets had a good reason to consider it impossible. One of the chief challenges was the necessity to keep the entire ship in one spot on the middle of Pacific ocean while picking the submarine off the ocean’s floor. In 1974, when the ship was completed and dispatched, there was no GPS yet. Instead the problem was solved by dropping an array of radio beacons to the bottom of Pacific, and the ship was able to maintain its position in relation to them with a 45-meters accuracy. Which sounds like a lot, but let’s remember that the whole ship was 189 meters long and way too large to pass through the Panama channel.
  • another challenge was the issue of ocean’s rolling motion which had to be isolated from the grabber somehow to prevent it from swinging while reaching 4,900 meters below. This was addressed by lowering the grabber from a central derrick tower which was gimbaled and kept level in its entirety – a task which required making quite possibly the largest gimbal bearings ever made, rated 5,000 tons each.
  • in the end, the CIA has internally estimated the project’s chance of success at 40-50%. The Glomar Explorer managed to locate the K-129, put the grabber over it, pick it off the ocean’s floor and start hauling it up. At 1,500 meters above the ocean’s floor some of the grabber’s claws broke (a problem later declared to stem from a wrong choice of metal for such an enormous depth) and the submarine, lacking support, broke into three pieces, two of which fell back down while the third one has been recovered.
  • with the Glomar Explorer’s moon pool being occupied by the retrieved K-129’s section and with the damaged grabber, the CIA decided to bring the ship back home and return next year to retrieve the rest of the remains. However, in 1975 the Glomar Explorer’s story has leaked to the US press, revealing the entire project to the Soviets and resulting in increased international tensions which meant that the project could not have been continued.
  • the exact contents of the retrieved hull section remain classified. Glomar Explorer was property of the US Navy until late 90’s but saw little use as the Navy struggled to find any tasks for it. It was then sold to private shipowner, but – having proved very costly for commercial use – it was eventually scrapped in 2015.

The work on the model has begun with designing the grabber – I’ve quickly put together an early proof-of-concept prototype and decided that it should be roughly 60-70 cm long to look and work like the real thing. For the submarine to be raised, I have selected a 1:100 scale Uboot VIIB model and then I’ve scaled the rest of the ship accordingly to the grabber’s size, which resulted in a truly enormous model.

The functions were as follows:

  • the grabber could have been opened and closed remotely despite not having any motor inside. The trick was using two independent winches and balancing them against each other. Each winch had one section of string which ran through one grabber’s end to a winch drum in grabber’s middle. There were two such drums located on a single vertical axle, one for each winch, and the sections of strings were wrapped around them in opposite direction – so that pulling one string resulted in loosening the other. As a result, when the grabber was hanging from the strings, it could have been lowered or raised by running the two winches in the same direction, or tilted left and right when the winches were ran in the opposite directions. But when the grabber’s legs rested on something and its weight was no longer suspended from the strings, running the winches in opposite directions caused the drums in grabber’s middle to rotate. The vertical axle rotated with them, opening or closing the claws with a worm gear. Such mechanism relied on grabber’s weight to work (I have weighted the grabber down to a total of almost 1.8 kg) but it remained functional at any depth, as long as the grabber’s legs were supported, and it was only limited by the length of the strings.
  • it was my goal to build the entire ship without any glue and other methods of sealing LEGO pieces to make them watertight. So the ship wasn’t watertight at all – instead, it was build around large blocks of XPS, a durable high-density insolation foam that doesn’t absorb any water. I have cut up two such blocks, each with 40 kg of displacement, and put one in the bow and another one in the stern. I have later reduced their load capacity by 1/4, but the model still had more load capacity that it needed – in fact, at full weight only around 1/4th of the hull went below the waterline.
  • to make transporting the model and working on it feasible, I have split the hull into three sections: bow, center and stern. The center section didn’t have any XPS in it, as it was build entirely around the moon pool, and so it relied on the two other sections for positive buoyancy. This has created a significant structural stress in the central section, especially when raising a submarine, so I have braced the central hull section vertically from the inside in all four corners of the moon pool. As a result, it was entirely possible to lift the central section up while holding it by the very extreme ends.
  • other remotely controlled functions included the main propellers, the double rudder, the bow thrusters, a twin crane that moved a small scout sub from the deck to water, and a winch that raised and lowered two anchors. Additionally, there were some manually controlled functions such as a large lattice crane that could fold in half for transportation, two small level-luffing cranes that could slide along short rails, and there was a Brickstuff lighting system in the rear superstructure and on the helipad.
  • the entire ship was powered and controlled using Power Functions, with the battery box and the four receivers hidden inside the funnel to make them exposed but keep them inobtrusive.

In the end the model was my largest project ever, and it proved rather exhausting to work on. I had to work mostly on the floor as I didn’t have any tables big enough to put any hull section of top, and even my LEGO room could house two of the three sections at a time. I don’t have any plans for something even bigger, but the experiences, especially experiences in dealing with structural stress, will certainly come in handy in the future.

I’m aware that the model doesn’t look perfectly authentic and it’s not as detailed as the work of some builders who specialize in ships. But my goal was making a model that floats and works despite its enormous size, so I had to focus on making it strong and stable. It’s difficult to make something so big very detailed because of the sheer amount of work, but also because with the hulls being hollow and housing large blocks of XPS, there was no room for fancy building techniques like e.g. building the hull sideways.

The video below demonstrates the model’s functions in detail. Please note that raising the submarine has been attempted in a bathtub only, and the reason is that the COVID lockdown has restricted my access to public pools and I could only use a private pool which had no shallow end and was pretty deep. Without anyone to dive with parts and a camera, I’ve decided not to risk putting the submarine on the pool’s bottom and instead kept in inside the grabber while testing the ship in the pool. Simply putting the ship in the pool required at least three people and good coordination, so I felt like I shouldn’t try my luck if I don’t absolutely have to – after all, sinking such an enormous model would be catastrophic.


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