UH professor and students digitally re-create retrieval of Soviet sub

By Lena Atherton
Daily Cougar Staff 

University of Houston Assistant Professor of Architecture Keith Sylvester and several UH architecture and technology students have delved into the secrets of the deep using the latest in computer animation technology.

Sylvester and his team have recently re-created the United States’ retrieval of a Soviet nuclear submarine that allegedly sank in 1968 off the coast of Hawaii. 

The event occurred in the midst of the Cold War and resulted in a denial of the submarine’s sinking by the Soviet government.

A further denial of the sub's retrieval by the U.S. government has only recently led the Soviet government to acknowledge that the submarine existed. The U.S. government still denies its recovery.

Sylvester and his team have completed a computer animated re-creation of the event that will air Jan. 19 on the Public Broadcasting Service show Nova in an episode entitled "Submarines: Secrets and Spies."

The show will cover other material besides the "Jennifer Project," the code name for the U.S. retrieval of the sub, and will offer an in-depth study of Cold War tensions between the United States and Russia. 

"The re-enactments are used within the show to explain the Jennifer Project, but also (to explain) other submarine conflicts," said Sylvester.

The Glomar Explorer — a 36,000 ton vessel that stretched two football fields long and 23 stories high — was the original tool built by the CIA, the military and Houston millionaire Howard Hughes in order to recover the Soviet sub. 

The explorer contained a submersible claw called the Clementine — featured in the UH team's animation program — used for picking up parts of the submarine. 

Sylvester described the re-creation of the Clementine that he and his team built as "accurate and believable."

During the three-year span that it took Sylvester and his team to re-create the event, the team faced several obstacles caused by the controversy surrounding the historical event. "One was information. Two was resources," said Sylvester. In creating an animated account, the UH team was limited to only two books for information: "Matter of Risk" by Roy D. Varner and "The Jennifer Project" by Houston author Clyde W. Burleson. 

Another challenge the team faced was piecing together the conflicting stories told by the CIA and members of the Glomar crew. 

"The whole situation was pretty much top secret," said Sylvester.

There was also the difficult task of finding students who would be able to handle the advanced level of the project. Sylvester, who teaches computer animation and design at the UH Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, relied on architecture student James Trulove and College of Technology students Barclay Burger, Juan Gomez and Quy Hoang for their help. 

"It was quite a lot of fun, and the students enjoyed it," said Sylvester.

Sylvester, whose previous re-creations for a PBS documentary led to the movie Apollo 13, was enthusiastic about Nova’s choosing the UH team instead of using highly paid "professionals" to create the program. 

The re-creation project has landed Sylvester and his team not only national attention, but international as well — tapes of the program will be sold throughout Europe. 

For further information about the project, check local listings for the Jan. 19 Nova episode, "Submarines: Secrets and Spies."

Reach Atherton at

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