USS Nautilus set a new standard for submarines. Rather than a surface ship capable of submerging when the need arose, this submarine's natural environment lay below the surface. After USS Nautilus (SSN-571) American submarines had virtually unlimited submerged endurance and the ability to conduct extended patrols in a hostile environment - a practice that became highly secret and routine over nearly fifty years of Cold War.
Nautilus was the world's first nuclear powered warship, and the first submarine to be equipped with a nuclear reactor. Authorized in August 1951, she joined the fleet on 30 September 1954, though remained dockside for several months while fitting out. On 17 January 1955 she pulled away from the dock at Groton CT and signalled at 1100, "underway on nuclear power", then proceeded to make the longest submerged passage in history, to Puerto Rico breaking the highest sustained submerge record en route. She remained an experimental testbed for her entire career and was deactivated in March 1980, designated a national landmark 20 May 1982 and towed to Groton in July 1985 to begin her new career as a museum.
Driven by the world's first nuclear propulsion system, Nautilus was preordained to set records and accomplish "firsts." On her maiden voyage to Puerto Rico in May 1955, Nautilus remained submerged for 1,381 miles and 89.9 hours, the longest submerged cruise to that date, by a submarine and at the highest sustained submerged speed heretofore recorded for a period of more than one hour's duration. In 1957, Nautilus became the first submarine to travel under the polar ice pack. On August 3, 1958, to much acclaim and world-wide publicity, she became the first ship to reach the geographic north pole. For most of her 25 years in the depths, Nautilus served in the fleet as a good will ship and, in her military role, as a target submarine in anti-submarine warfare exercises and as an attack submarine.
The advent of nuclear power for ship propulsion had a profound effect on everyone involved in undersea warfare. Since the technology was completely new, Rickover had to provide the staff at Electric Boat Division (EB) with a broad education in physics, nuclear engineering, and steam systems suited for submarine propulsion. The admiral also knew that the technology would, in its turn, instruct both the Navy and civilian shipbuilders. Nautilus forced the Navy, industry, and science to learn more about quieting, highly toxic liquid metals, vibration at sustained high speed, and the necessity of carefully managing construction materials. When a pipe that did not meet the proper specifications failed during the final dockside trials of the Nautilus cooling system before the reactor went critical, EB learned the most fundamental lesson of all: Failure to measure up to the demands of the technology could have devastating results.
At the request of then-Captain H. G. Rickover, USN, the first study of the application of a high-pressure, water-cooled reactor for a submarine was undertaken at Oak Ridge, Tenn., in September 1947. In January 1948 the Department of Defense requested the Atomic Energy Commission to design, develop and build a nuclear reactor which would propel a submarine.
In August 1949 the Chief of Naval Operations established an operational requirement to develop a submarine nuclear propulsion plant with a ready-for-sea date of January 1955. The late Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, then CNO, recommended the construction of a nuclear submarine to Congress on 25 Apr. 1950, and the following August, the President signed Public Law 674 which authorized construction of Nautilus.
That same month saw the start of construction of the Nautilus land-based prototype (submarine thermal reactor, Mark I) at the AEC's National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Mark I (Nautilus was known as STR Mark II) was built from the start inside a submarine hull, complete with a surrounding tank of water, on the assumption that it was a true seagoing power plant. Breadboard techniques and engineering shortcuts were riot allowed. The model went critical at 11:17 PM, MST on 30 Mar 1953 - an occasion which marked the first production of significant quantities of useful nuclear power in the world. About three months later, on 25 June, Mark I commenced a 96-hour sustained full-power run, simulating a submerged crossing of the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, in August 1951, the Bureau of Ships (now the Naval Ship Systems Command) awarded contract for the construction of the first nuclear powered submarine. From this point onward, events moved rapidly. Nautilus' keel was laid 14 June 1952 at Groton. President Harry Truman presided at the keel-laying ceremonies for the Nautilus. By 1952, the Electric Boat Company, builder of USS Nautilus in Groton, Connecticut, had installed the main turbine, condenser, reduction gear, and other parts in the submarine's engine room. The pressure vessel was installed in the reactor compartment. She was christened on 21 Jan 1954 and was commissioned 30 Sept 1954.
Her nuclear power propulsion plant was first operated at power on 20 December 1954 and first developed full power alongside the dock on 3 January 1955. USS Nautilus went to sea propelled by a pressurized-water nuclear reactor plant a few days later. On 17 January 1955 Nautilus, putting to sea for the first time, signaled her message: "Underway on nuclear power." Her Mark II reactor, a refined version of the prototype Mark I reactor, behaved beautifully. During her first sea trials, she completed high speed test runs, both surfaced and submerged, and dived more than 50 times. After further testing, she was accepted by the Navy on 22 April 1955.
She then proceeded to smash just about every existing record that pertained to subs. On her shakedown cruise in May, Nautilus steamed submerged from New London, Conn., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, traveling over 1300 miles in 84 hours - more than 10 times further than any submarine had ever traveled while submerged. It was the first time that a combatant submarine had maintained such a high submerged speed (about 16 knots) for longer than an hour, the longest period spent submerged by a U. S. submarine, and the fastest passage between New London and San Juan by any submarine, surfaced or submerged, She later made an even faster submerged passage from Key West to New London, a distance of 1397 miles, at an average speed of more than 20 knots. After more than two years of operation and evaluation, nautilus was refueled in April 1957. On her first core she had steamed a total of 62,562 miles, more than half of which was submerged. To cover this distance, a conventionally powered sub the size of Nautilus would have required more than two million gallons of fuel oil. She then resumed operations with the Fleet, deploying to the Pacific via the Panama Canal and, upon her return to the Atlantic, participating in NATO exercises in Northern European waters. She completed several excursions under the polar ice cap and penetrated to within 180 miles of the North Pole.
This was merely prelude. On 12 August 1958, she completed a trans-polar voyage from Pearl Harbor to Portland, England. After diving under the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, on 01 August 1958, she became the first ship to reach the geographic North Pole, passing beneath it on 3 August. She surfaced in the Greenland Sea two days later after steaming 1830 miles under the ice in 96 hours. For this achievement, which demonstrated the strategic potential of the Arctic, she was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (the first such to be awarded in peacetime) and her commanding officer, Commander William R. Anderson, the Legion of Merit.
The success of this 1958 sea trial reflected glory on the S1W Prototype. Nautilus commander, Bill Anderson, sent the following telegram to NRF workers from the White House upon his triumphant return to Washington, D.C.: "... during Nautilus' North Pole submerged transit from Pacific to Atlantic the performance of our engineering plant exceeded all expectations. To the first manufacturer of naval nuclear propulsion our sincere thanks for providing the plant that made possible this first transpolar crossing."
In May 1959, she was again refueled and received her first regular overhaul - after more than four years of intensive operation. She had steamed more than 153,000 miles on her first two reactor cores, 115,000 miles of which had been submerged. During her first four and one-half years of operation, she had been submerged for more than one year. By September 1966 she had completed 300,000 miles of steaming on nuclear power, more than 250,000 of which were submerged.
The reliability of Nautilus' nuclear propulsion plant was considered to be due in large measure to the experience gained in the construction and operation of the land prototype plant. After being refueled in late 1955 following two years of nearly continuous operation and testing, the prototype completed a continuous full power run of 66 days with its new core installed. This would have been sufficient to carry Nautilus twice around the world without refueling, and served to demonstrate the virtually unlimited cruising range of nuclear powered hips, even at high speeds. The prototype again refueled in early 1958 and late 1960 and now being refueled with an advanced design core, is used today as a test facility for investigating new concepts in the technology, design and operation of advanced nuclear power plants as well as a training facility for crewmembers of nuclear powered ships.
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