The USS Nautilus, delivered to the United States Navy the 30th September 1954, had been built by the naval division of the General Dynamics Electric, in Groton, Connecticut. The name "Nautilus", formerly adopted by other units of the US Navy, was that of the also revolutionary submarine manned by Captain Nemo, protagonist of the novel by Jules Verne "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea". The keel of the USS Nautilus was laid down the 14th June 1952 and the vessel was launched the 21st January 1954.

The USS Nautilus was not only the first nuclear-powered submarine, but also the first vessel of this type. Until then, submarines had had a very limited operational capacity and safety, for they were forced to periodically emerge to the surface, or at least to navigate at a depth that allowed them to use their snorkel (air intake to allow combustion), so they could activate the Diesel engines which were used not only for propulsion, but also for recharging the electric batteries needed to navigate while submerged.

Obviously, when submarines navigated surfaced, or at very small depth, they were very exposed to be detected by the enemy. Thus, nuclear energy seemed the ideal solution to the problem, for the fision process allows to generate enough heat to move the steam turbines onboard the submarine, providing so the propulsion power without requiring oxygene. A nuclear-powered submarine could remain submerged during long periods, as much as the crew could resist.

USS Nautilus submarine

Nuclear-powered navigation

The reactor for the USS Nautilus was built by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, in Pittsburgh. The installation entered operation, for the first time and at full power, the 3rd January 1955, being the submarine in her berthing place; two weeks later, 17th January, the USS Nautilus left the dock to put to sea. Besides allowing the submarine to remain submerged for long periods, nuclear propulsion rendered the USS Nautilus able to cover distances, between resupplies, much longer than in any other submarine of conventional propulsion.

Indeed, the submarine was resupplied at Groton in February 1957, about nine months after her definitive commissioning in the Navy the 11th May 1956, and more than two years after her first departure to sea. The submarine had navigated 100681 kilometers with a single resupply for the reactor core; a conventional unit of the same size would have required nine millions of liters of gasoil to travel the same distance. The first cores were enriched on 18-20 percent, while the subsequent ones reached 40 percent, allowing a notable increment in operational range between resupplies.

In her first trial trip, in May 1955, from New London, Connecticut, to San Juan de Puerto Rico, the USS Nautilus navigated submerged a distance of 2222 kilometers (distance record for submerged navigation), with an average speed of 16 knots (about 30 kilometers/hour), which a submarine had never been able to sustain for more than one hour. In May 1957, navigating from Groton to the Pacific, the submarine traveled 4905 kilometers between the Panama Canal and San Diego, California, without emerging to surface.

But her most spectacular deed was effectuated in the summer of 1958, when she began a exploration travel through the Arctic departing from Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. The USS Nautilus managed to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic navigating beneath the ice cap of the North Pole, emerging to surface after 1830 miles and incurring in an error in her course inferior to ten miles. For this deed, the USS Nautilus was given the Presidential Unit Citation, granted for the first time during peace time.

During the Cuban Crisis in 1962 the USS Nautilus was used to reinforce the blockade and in 1976 the Navy honored her with a high recognition for her behaviour. In November 1966, while navigating at few meters underwater, she collided against the aircraft carrier USS Essex, suffering some damages but no human losses. The service of the USS Nautilus with the US Navy ended the 3rd May 1980, when her nuclear fuel was dismantled and she was left deactivated at Mare Island, California. From that dock the submarine, properly escorted, was towed through the Panama Canal to the submarine base at New London, her place of origin in Groton, Connecticut, where she arrived the 6th July 1985 for being reconverted into a museum ship.

Operation Sunshine: crossing the North Pole

The 23rd July 1958, the USS Nautilus departed from Pearl Harbor heading to the Arctic, to reach for the Atlantic by navigating under the ice cap. The first attempt, made in June, had not been successful, for the thickness of the ice and the low depth blocked the passage to the North, but now Commander William R. Anderson and his crew expected to have better luck.

The 29th July, after having passed the Bering Strait, they arrived to the point where they were forced to desist during their first attempt. The following day they inspected, emerging to surface, the edges of the ice cap in search of the entrance to the submarine valley in the Barrow Sea. They found it after two days and, once assured that there was enough space for the submarine to pass, having into account the deepest peaks of the ice on the surface, Anderson ordered to start immersion and head towards the North Pole.

In this area, due to not existing any precedent cartography, they observed that the ice was thicker than expected and that some submarine mountain ranges existed in the bottom. Everyone onboard feared that this were again a failed attempt, and they had put into alert status the torpedo room in case it were necessary to open a hole by using torpedoes. The following photograph shows the torpedo room on the USS Nautilus as she was crossing beneath the ice.

USS Nautilus - Torpedo room
At 10:00 hours (US West Coast timezone) the 3rd August, the USS Nautilus reached 87 degrees North, the northernmost location reached until then by any vessel, beating so the record set in 1957. During the night of the same day the submarine navigated as much as possible to the North, reaching the North Pole at 19:15 hours (23:15 hours in US East Coast timezone), after having spent 62 hours under the ice.

Another 34 hours were needed before the USS Nautilus could emerge to surface in front of the northeastern coast of Greenland and near the Svalbard Archipelago. Anderson used the occassion to send a historical radio message: "Nautilus 90 degrees North." This because he could not be able to send the message while being actually in that position under the thick ice cap. Then the submarine continued the navigation on the Atlantic, passing between Greenland and Iceland and heading to Portland, in Great Britain, where she arrived the 12th August.

USS Nautilus North Pole travel route
As a curiosity, just to mention that, after emerging the USS Nautilus out of the ices, Captain Anderson was picked up by an airplane to be transported to the White House, where he would give details about the travel to the President of the United States, being returned to the submarine before she reached Portland.

The USS Nautilus in detail

When the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) entered service, she was the largest submarine built until then, with a length of 97 meters, a beam of 8.2 meters and a displacement of 4157 tonnes when surfaced. Her complement comprised 11 officers and 100 men more, including non-commissioned officers. Her hull resembled that of the German submarines of the Type XXI built during the Second World War, for the United States had made tests with "teardrop" hulls and considered them potentially faster and more maneuverable underwater. The depth limit of the submarine was set to 120 meters, but she could have descended without any risk to 220 meters.

Even if the USS Nautilus was used only as an experimental unit, she was an attack submarine armed with six 533-millimeter torpedo tubes, all installed at prow like in the German Type XXI. She also had potent and precise sonar devices BQS-4 and BQS-2C.

The construction cost of the USS Nautilus was very high for that time: 40 millions of dollars, of which 25 corresponded to the nuclear reactor. This one, which was cooled by pressurized water, along with the steam turbines generated 15000 horsepower on each of the two shafts, allowing a speed above 20 knots while surfaced and above 22.5 knots while submerged. The energy provided by this reactor was used to start the welding operations in the keel of the nuclear submarine USS Lafayette (SSBN-616), armed with Polaris missiles, when her keel was laid up the 17th January 1961, sixth anniversary of the first travel of the USS Nautilus using nuclear propulsion.

USS Nautilus submarine cutaway
Inspection Window

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