AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 2, Fall 1996


Problems and Sources in the History of Project Mohole

by David K. van Keuren

Next year (1997) will mark the fortieth anniversary of the origins of Project Mohole, the first big federally funded research project in the Earth Sciences. Conceived in the spring of 1957 by Princeton University's Harry Hess and by Walter Munk of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mohole went on to become a classic example of the difficulties of organizing and funding large-scale science and technology projects. The project lost its funding in 1966 after major cost increases and fierce debates among proponents undermined its support within Congress and the general scientific community.

Popularly promoted as an exploration of "inner space," the Mohole drilling project proposed to drill under the ocean floor, where the earth's crust is thinnest, to the upper layer of the mantle. Drilling would sample the crust, the Mohorovicic Discontinuity between the crust and mantle, and the mantle itself. Geological and geophysical evidence acquired during the drilling would speak to the age and formation of the earth and the ocean basins and to the then hot question of continental drift and sea floor spreading. The project, Hess and Munk argued, would have a potentially revolutionary impact upon the Earth Sciences.

Phase one of the project, with exploratory drilling in more than 11,000 ft. of water, was an unqualified success. It smashed all previous records for ocean drilling, demonstrated that a drilling vessel could be held stationary for long periods on the open ocean, and gave geologists their first peek at the oceanic crust's second layer. The techniques and experiences acquired as a result led eventually to the immensely successful Deep Sea Drilling Project which ultimately succeeded Mohole. However, Phase two of Mohole was little less than an administrative disaster, as was ably chronicled by Daniel Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science (1968) and other contemporary observers.

Little scholarship has been directed to Project Mohole since the 1960s. Many important questions regarding such issues as political involvement in the awarding of the Mohole drilling contract, the dynamics of the National Science Foundation's administration of the project, and internal relationships within the community of geologists, geophysicists, and oceanographers who supported the project (particularly between hard-rock and sedimentary geologists) have not been answered. Mohole is one of the most important and least understood big science projects in postwar America.

The records of the Mohole administrators and scientists are now available to scholars, and a few of the original participants are still alive. The National Academy Mohole Committee records are open and available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Approximately eight shelf feet of Mohole records detail the National Academy's and the American Miscellaneous Society's involvement in the drilling project. Over 200 boxes of National Science Foundation records are available within the National Archives and Federal Records Center in Washington, D.C. Additionally, there are the Mohole-related papers of Harry Hess (Princeton University Library), Walter Munk (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), William Rubey (Library of Congress), Hollis Hedberg (National Academy of Sciences), Maurice Ewing (University of Texas), Willard Bascom (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), and other Mohole participants. The participant list of the project contains many of the preeminent geologists, geophysicists, and oceanographers of a generation.

It is curious that a science project as inherently interesting as the Earth Sciences' answer to the space race should be so little understood and investigated. This writer has been investigating the Mohole records and interviewing those project participants who still survive, aiming to write a historical overview of the project. But there is plenty of opportunity and cause for other researchers to study this fascinating although ultimately disappointing episode in postwar American science.

David van Keuren is in the History Office, Code 1232, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, DC 20375.

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