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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Project Mohole Pioneers Deep Sea Drilling

Air Date: Week of

Half a century ago a prestigious crew of oil drillers and engineers embarked on an unprecedented scientific adventure. Their mission: to dig deeper into the earth than anyone had ever gone. Host Bruce Gellerman celebrates the anniversary of Project Mohole with Ed Horton, one of the original team members who went on to deeply influence ocean drilling.


GELLERMAN: 50 years ago - spring 1961, off the coast of Baja Mexico scientists reached new depths.

[ANNOUNCER: - from documentary - This is a story about a scientific and engineering adventure unique in the history of the ocean. This is the first deep ocean drilling.]

GELLERMAN: It was called project Mohole - named after the Mohorovicic discontinuity, the boundary between the earth’s crust and the mantle. The project was organized by the National Academy of Sciences.

[ANNOUNCER: Willard Bascom, director of the Moho project for the Academy, is speaking; “We must go in water nearly 30 times deeper… obviously these are very difficult engineering problems.” ]

GELLERMAN: They had to go through 12 thousand feet of water and hoped to drill miles into the ocean floor but only got 600 feet. Still, it was a deepwater record - accomplished by a team of academic scientists and oil industry specialists.

[ANNOUNCER: Dr. Jack McClellan, chief engineer of the experimental drilling project. Peter Johnson, Naval Architect, Edward Horton, drilling engineer, designer of special tools and equipment.]

GELLERMAN: Ed Horton is still a petroleum engineer - half a century after project Mohole broke new ground, he’s still in the deepwater drilling business. Ed Horton, welcome to Living on Earth.

HORTON: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

GELLERMAN: So how did you get involved in project Mohole?

HORTON: Well, it was quite by accident in a way. I knew one of the principal persons that were involved in it, and Willard Bascomb said: ‘would you like to join my team on this new adventure?’ and I said, ‘I would very much like to.’

GELLERMAN: So take me back there - were you aboard the ship?


GELLERMAN: What was it like when you were drilling? Was it boring, I guess, you know it kind of…

HORTON: Have you ever been on a ship that’s drilling 12,000 feet of water for the first time?

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) No…

HORTON: OK, well then, I’m glad you said no, because if you said you were bored, you better find a new job!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) So, it was very exciting then.

HORTON: Of course it was exciting!

GELLERMAN: Do you remember that John Steinbeck was aboard the ship as it was drilling and he was writing about it for Life Magazine?

HORTON: I was well aware of that, and I had a few chances to talk to him. He was a very impressive person to be associated with.

Mohole Scientists collected samples from deeper in the Earth than ever before. (Photo from Life Magazine, April 14, 1961)

GELLERMAN: He wound up writing about it - he called the ship that you were aboard… that it had "sleek racelines of an outhouse standing on a garbage scow"- not very complimentary!

HORTON: I thought that was very descriptive, though, and it sounds like something he would say, and I’m very impressed with the fact that he called a spade a spade.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) But it did the job, huh?

HORTON: It did a very good job.

GELLERMAN: So, Mr. Horton, how far did you get down there with Project Mohole?

HORTON: I think it was about 100 meters or something like that. I can’t remember, but we did get cores, too, that was the main thing. It would be easy to go down in 12,000 feet of water and drill a hole. It was a little more difficult to go down and drill a hole that deep, which isn’t very deep, but it was deeper than any other core that had been taken at that depth - by a long shot.

GELLERMAN: Well, you came up with one of the key new pieces of useful technology that made project Mohole possible - the guide shoe - do I have that correct?

HORTON: How did you know that I invented the guide shoe?! (Laughs) I never told anybody about it, but it was a way of keeping the drill string from breaking in the really deep water. It was pretty dumb and simple, so I was able to invent it.

GELLERMAN: So what does a guide shoe look like, and how does it work?

HORTON: Well, if you took a trumpet and just took the bottom of it, and you ran a piece of straw or something through it, the bending radius would be restricted by the curvature of the mouth of the trumpet, and then the ship would be the mouth of the trumpet, so as the ship rolled with the seas, the drill pipe or the risers as used now would be restricted in its bending.

GELLERMAN: So, back then you were a young petroleum engineer, and you invented the tension leg platform and the spar, which according to your company website says together these two products alone represent the vast majority of all combined floating, drilling and production systems operational in the world today. Now you’re one of the most accomplished deepwater petroleum engineers in the world, I guess, right?

HORTON:Well, I don’t know about that. (Laughs) It’s hard to say- as long as you say I’m one of many deepwater engineers.

GELLERMAN: So, how far can we go down now?

HORTON: How high is the sky?

GELLERMAN: There’s no limit?

HORTON: Of course there’s a limit, you’ll come out the other side.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). You know, at the time this was called the earth sciences’ equivalent of the space shot. Is that what was going on in your mind? Did you think that?

HORTON: No. I can tell the difference between a space shot, and drilling a hole.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) So, I’ve gotta ask you, Mr. Horton, every kid wants to go out in the backyard and dig a hole- why did you get interested in drilling?

HORTON: Well, that’s not a difficult question. I was interested in oil, and I saw a movie called Boomtown, and it had Spencer Tracy in it , I think, and Clark Gable, and the two of them were wildcatters, and I think it was in Oklahoma…

[MOVIE CLIP - Boomtown: Hey look, I’m an oil man too, you know, I haven’t been drilling all my life for gophers!/ Hey, wait a minute, little man, I was pulling it out of the ground when your ma was giving it to you for your health…]

HORTON: They both had good-looking girlfriends, which made it more exciting for them…

[MOVIE CLIPS: Hi Evie, how’s my barrel of sweet Spanish crude/ Where you been hiding, honey?/ I hear they’re running a big wildcat out in California/ Wildcats, wildcats! Always looking for wildcats. When are you going to settle down, darling?/ What the heck, Evie. Travel and brag, brag and travel. Maybe I’ll hit oil where there ain’t.]

The Mohole crew aboard the CUSS I, which John Steinbeck noted "has the sleek race lines of an outhouse standing on a garbage scow." (Photo from Life Magazine, April 14, 1961)

HORTON: But they ran out of money and they begged, borrowed and stealed to drill a little further. And then, all of a sudden, in the derrick, I think it was wooden, and it started to rumble and shake…


HORTON: And then black stuff came up all over and they were all covered with mud. Both Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy…

[MOVIE CLIP: Woohee, you’re rich mister. / Boy ain’t that a beautiful black cloud…]

HORTON: And I thought, boy, that’s a real way to live - this is an adventure.

GELLERMAN: Did Mohole live up to that adventure?

HORTON: Uh, in my mind it did, and it wasn’t as muddy as it was in Boomtown, but it certainly gave me an incentive to stay with the oil industry, and it’s had just as many adventures, very few of them in my career have been very muddy, but when you watch one of these spars and then involved in a tip-up, and you hope it’s been designed right and when it comes back up again, it just… makes me shiver, in a way. Looking at it - you say, ‘Golly, that’s a hell of a sight!’ And I don’t think that there are very many people besides me that have been able to have that joy and the pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Horton, it has been a real pleasure talking to you.

HORTON: Well, and a pleasure trying to answer your questions to the best of my ability (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: That’s Ed Horton, president of Horton Wison Deepwater. 50 years ago he was an engineer on Project Mohole. For photos and John Steinbeck’s article about the project, go to our website, L-O-E dot org. And while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com.



Commemorating the Accomplishments of Project Mohole -- 1961-2011:


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