The paper supports everything. A working breakfast in a sunny patio on the Californian coast, too. In this way, among cups of coffee, croissants and toast with jam that come and go, in 1957 a group of scientists from the picturesque American Miscellaneous Society (AMSOC) when two of them, the geologist Harry Hess and the oceanographer Walter Munkdecided to launch a research proposal: open a huge hole on earth.
And huge is not an exaggeration.
What Hess and Munk proposed was to drill a kilometer well that would allow reaching and extracting a sample of what is known as Mohorovicic discontinuitythe boundary between the earth’s crust and the mantle, a strip located at a depth between 25 and 40 kilometers on the continents and 5 to 10 km if what is taken as a reference is the ocean floor. What’s more, once they were digging, a sample of the planet’s own mantle could even be obtained.
“It sounded so simple and logical”
The idea sounded crazy, but it was 1957, the space race took strength and with the Cold War As a backdrop, the US looked with interest at any project that would allow it to demonstrate its scientific power before the USSR.
Besides, as Willard Bascom would recognizefrom AMSOC, the proposal seemed most reasonable when listening to it with a hot coffee in hand, among colleagues and letting the morning sun caress it on the Pacific coast.
“The project sounded so simple and logical at a working breakfast in a sunny patio”, wrote time later about that peculiar brainstorming.
Whether it was simple or not —which, spoiler: no, it wasn’t— the idea came to fruition. Its promoters knew how to take advantage of the strong winds of international rivalry and dropped how far the Russians were advancing in the field of science and how they looked with interest at the exploration of the Mohorovičić discontinuity.
57 was the year of the launch of the Sputnik so the strategy worked and the drilling project ended up winning the backing of the National Science Foundation (NSF), a government agency created seven years earlier.
The adventure was baptized mohole project, combination of “Moho”, the abbreviation of Mohorovičić, and “hole”, in English. Short Simple. Easy to handle and understand. Everything that was not going to turn out to be the scientific challenge itself.
“Where do we get the money?” It was not, however, the only question that scientists had to solve. Another, equally or even more crucial, was “Where to drill?”
The answer was a very specific location in the Pacific, near Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Mexico. And there was a good reason for that. If efforts were focused on the ocean floor, the team would have to drill far fewer meters of Earth’s crust, a not inconsiderable advantage when the target is kilometers deep.
The problem, of course, is that this requires operating from a ship, in the middle of the ocean, among the waves, and deploying the drilling equipment at a depth of more than 3,000 m. “It’s like trying to work on the surface of the Earth from a helicopter, half a mile up,” explains to Vox geologist Donna Blackman.
Today, with the Japanese drillship Chikyu drilling record-breaking holes and researchers reaching marks of 8,023 meters underwater, the challenge may sound less impressive, but in the 1950s it was.
The oil companies had not yet begun to drill in such deep waters and undertaking a company like the one proposed by the AMSOC required answering a series of technical questions beforehand: How to keep the ship immobile in the middle of the ocean to deploy the drilling equipment? Dropping anchors was not very practical given the enormous distance from the seabed, so the final solution was to use a system of propellers.
They had to apply the same ingenuity to solve other issues that were as or more tricky: How to deploy the pipeline at such low levels and between strong currents? How to drill to the depth required to reach Moho? And once these challenges are solved, how do you get the samples up to the ship?
With a plan drawn up, in 1961 the scientists sailed aboard the ship CUSS I heading to Guadalupe Island to deploy what was supposed to be the first phase of the Mohole Project. The technicians drilled half a dozen wells in total, the deepest of 183 meters and at an underwater depth of 3,600 m. The machinery reached 13 m into the basalt of the upper oceanic crust.
That was very, very far from 6,000 meters needed to get to Moho and the cloak, but it was quite a feat that it even led President John F. Kennedy to wire the National Academy of Sciences to celebrate what he considered to be all “a remarkable achievement, a historic milestone.”
Neither Kennedy’s good words, nor the promise of the company, nor the ability it had shown to overcome technical challenges, however, helped the Mohole Project go much further.
In 1961, the Mohole project started, with the aim of drilling through Earth’s crust to the mantle. John Steinbeck (yes, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1yr later) was on the ship & I’ve just found his amazing (genuine joy plus snark) article: pic.twitter.com/DymGw2ta4o
—Helen Czerski (@helenczerski) December 21, 2021
Drilling holes in the ocean floor was expensive and in 1966 the US Congress decided that it was not in the interest of continuing to pay for it. Add to that bureaucratic mistakes, the dissolution of AMSOC in 1964 and differences between team members about what the next steps should be, and you will have the epitaph of a project that, nevertheless, is remembered as a special chapter in 20th century science and served to demonstrate the exciting possibilities of drilling. from the ocean floor.
The Mohole Project it did not mark the end either of interest in the earth’s mantle, an objective on which the Soviets also focused and left other equally curious stories, such as that of the kilometer-long Kola super-deep well, 12.2 km.
Companies that are not simple, but so attractive that, as Bascom recognized, it is very difficult to turn your back on them when they are discussed on paper.
Images: NOAA (Wikipedia) and Ausdew (Flickr)
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