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SSN-571 Nautilus - Construction

The construction of Nautilus took place between 1949 and 1955. On the government side were the AEC with its field offices and laboratories and the Navy through the Bureau of Ships. Industry was represented by the Westinghouse Corporation as general contractor and by Electric Boat and a host of other companies as sub-contractors to Westinghouse.

At the same time, the AEC contracted with the General Electric Company to build a sodium cooled intermediate reactor for use in a submarine. This action followed the Manhattan Project's practice of taking more than one approach to a problem. Rickover was also responsible for the GE reactor. The reactor was built, but it was plagued by corrosion problems. It was installed in USS Seawolf, but it was shut down shortly after the ship finished its sea trials and replaced by a pressurized water reactor.

In theory the division of labor called for the AEC's Argonne laboratory to be responsible for fundamental design, certain design criteria, and for approval of certain significant steps in the detailed reactor design. Westinghouse, which viewed the Navy project as its introduction to a potential growth industry centered on nuclear energy, would be responsible for the design and engineering of the rest of the system and for the construction of the reactor. To support Westinghouse's efforts, the AEC built the Bettis laboratory near Pittsburgh.

In practice, engineers and scientists at both Argonne and Bettis often found themselves working on both research and engineering questions. Electric Boat, eager to gain contracts for its yard that was caught up in the post-World War II shipbuilding depression, would construct the submarine. Rickover selected both Westinghouse and Electric Boat primarily because both companies had a corporate stake in t,he" project's success and thus would be more amenable, if not actually subservient, to his directions.

In August 1949, the Navy finally got around to catching up with its own procedures. On August 19, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Louis E. Denfield endorsed a memorandum establishing a Navy requirement to build a nuclear powered submarine. Hewlett and Duncan wrote that the memorandum, "did little more than give formal status to the development of a nuclear propulsion plant. I' The requirement set 1955 as the target date for the completion of an operational propulsion system and its installation in a submarine. It is vague how the Navy arrived at this date, but it is certain that Rickover viewed it as if it were a self-imposed deadline.

In the amazingly short period of four years, between 1949 and 1953, Rickover and the thousands of people who worked to his beat, designed, manufactured, and tested not just one, but two prototypes of the nuclear propulsion system that would power Nautilus. In building Nautilus, Rickover took many original steps that broke with traditional design and development projects.

Normally, engineers would build a prototype to test the system without regard for the system's final size or configuration. The prototype, for example, could be spread out across a laboratory to give the technicians better access to observe, test, and replace components. Rickover's innovation to this so-called "breadboard" system was his decision that the prototype would be from the very beginning designed and engineered in such a fashion that it would fit the hull of an operational submarine.

"He insisted," Polmar and Allan reported, "that the Mark I reactor be both an engineering prototype and a shipboard prototype, completely sized to fit a submarine's hull. This approach would cost engineering flexibility, but with it Rickover could speed up the development schedule."

The plan called for two hull-ready prototypes that were designated Mark 1 and Mark 2. Problems encountered in Mark 1 would be corrected in Mark 2. In Rickover 's words, "Mark 1 equals Mark 2." The culmination of the extraordinary effort came on June 25, 1953, at the AEC's testing facility in the desert near Arco, Idaho. On that day, Mark 1, which was situated in a mock-up submarine hull built by Electric Boat, achieved full power (the reactor had first gone critical on March 30).

Not only did the test prove the system a success, it also spawned a Rickover story. The engineers had called for a 48-hour full power test. After 24 hours, they thought they had obtained all the data they required and prepared to shut down the reactor. Rickover intervened. Eager to silence all critics and doubters, he ordered that the test be extended to simulate the run of a submerged submarine across the Atlantic. While anxious engineers fixed minor problems in the system, and while coyotes howled nearby, Mark 1 steamed 2,500 miles to Iceland. The prototype worked and Mark 2 went into Nautilus.

The construction of the ship at Electric Boat followed the pattern Rickover established in building Mark 1 and Mark 2. Normally, the ship would not be started until the propulsion system had proven itself. Changes in the design of the propulsion .system could force design changes in the hull. At the outside, the propulsion system might not work at all and the ship construction would be superfluous. Rickover decided to run the risk. Just as he had decided to build the ship-ready prototypes at the same time, so he also forged ahead to build the hull concurrent with power plant development.

As Rickover told the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in February 1950, what sense did it make to build a propulsion plant and not have a hull to put it in, especially in light of the Soviet Union's rapid advances in atomic energy. The Soviets had shortly before tested their first A-bomb.

The construction of the ship followed the same relentless and disciplined methods that Rickover imposed on all phases of the Nautilus program. Unlike the building of the propulsion system, Rickover did not have complete control over, nor interest in, all aspects of hull construction. Overall construction and supervision were vested in various branches of the Bureau of Ships. Nevertheless, because Rickover determined crew selection and training and had control over the propulsion system, he became involved in the construction process for virtually the entire ship.

On June 12, 1952, President Harry S. Truman officiated at the keel laying. A year and a half later on January 21, 1954, Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower sponsored the ship when she swung the traditional champagne bottle launching USS Nautilus.

After further outfitting and testing at dockside, the vessel was commissioned on September 30, 1954. More testing and crew training followed until on January 17, 1955, USS Nautilus put to sea. The date was a mere two weeks behind the schedule set in 1949. This is especially remarkable in these times of routine failure to meet construction schedules.

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Page last modified: 07-02-2016 19:42:01 ZULU