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USS Nautilus : World’s First Nuclear Power Submarine

The USS Nautilus (SSN-571) the world’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

Groton, Conn., May 8, 2002 — Nautilus (SSN 571), the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, leaves the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton en route Naval Submarine Base New London. Nautilus underwent a five-month preservation at a cost of approximately $4.7 million. Moreover, on Jan. 17, 1955, USS Nautilus put to sea for the first time and signaled her historic message “Underway on nuclear power.” She steamed submerged 1,300 miles from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In just 84 hours. The success of Nautilus ensured the future of nuclear power in the Navy. Now a museum, Nautilus is expected to re-open to the public at Groton’s Submarine Force Library and Museum by Armed Forces Day. The historic ship attracts some 250,000 visitors annually. U.S. Navy photo by Nicole Hawley.

Moreover, a huge Naval record breaker.

USS Nautilus : World’s First Nuclear Power Submarine

The USS Nautilus (SSN-571) became the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine and the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole.

Construction began on her in 1952, and the boat launched in January 1954. Commissioned the following September into the United States Navy, and physically delivered to the Navy in 1955.

Launching Nautilus

Because her nuclear propulsion allowed her to remain submerged for much longer than the previous diesel-electric submarines. As a result, she broke many records in her first year of operation. And traveled to locations beyond the limits of any other submarine. She revealed a number of limitations in her design and construction and the information became vital for improving later nuclear submarines.

The concept of a nuclear submarine began in March 1950 as project SCB 64. And in July 1951, the United States Congress authorized the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine for their Navy. Which was planned and personally supervised by Captain Hyman G. Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” On the 12th of December 1951, the US Department of the Navy announced the Nautilus. The fourth U.S. Navy vessel named ‘Nautilus’. The boat would carry the hull number SSN-571. She benefited from greater Underwater Propulsion Power.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover aboard the Nautilus

Future Of US Submarines

Nautilus was powered by the Submarine Thermal Reactor, which later was redesignated the S2W reactor. A pressurized water reactor produced for the US Navy by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory developed the basic reactor plant design used in Nautilus. After being given the assignment as early as 1947 to design a nuclear power plant for a submarine. Nuclear power had the crucial advantage in submarine propulsion because it is a zero-emission process that consumes no air.

This design became the basis for all of the US nuclear-powered submarine and surface combat ships.

And would later be the basis for other countries naval nuclear propulsion. The first actual prototype that was for Nautilus. And it was constructed and tested by the Argonne National Laboratory in 1953 which was part of the National Reactor Testing Station.

Following her commissioning, Nautilus remained dockside for further construction and testing. On the morning of the 17th of January 1955, at 11 am EST, Nautilus’ first Commanding Officer, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, ordered all lines cast off and signaled the historic message, “Underway on Nuclear Power.” On the 10th of May, she headed south for shakedown.

Submerged throughout, she traveled 1,100 nautical miles from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico. And covered 1,200 nautical miles in less than ninety hours. At the time, this was the longest submerged cruise by a submarine and at the highest speed ever recorded.
Nautilus‘s reactor core prototype at the S1W facility in Idaho

From 1955 to 1957, Nautilus continued to investigate the effects of increased submerged speeds and endurance. The improvements made all the progress made in anti-submarine warfare during World War II completely obsolete. Radar and anti-submarine aircraft, which had proved crucial in defeating submarines during the war, proved completely ineffective against a vessel able to move quickly out of an area, change depth quickly and stay submerged for very extremely long periods.

In May 1957 she departed for the Pacific Coast to participate in coastal exercises and the fleet exercise, operation “Home Run.” Which tested units of the Pacific Fleet with the capabilities of nuclear submarines.

Aerial view of the nuclear-powered attack submarine ex-USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) being towed across the continental divide. The NAUTILUS is en route to its original home port at Naval Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut. Furthermore, where it will become a memorial at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.

Nautilus returned to New London, Connecticut, on the 21st of July and departed again on the 19th of August for her first voyage of 1,200 nautical miles under polar pack ice. Thereafter, she headed for the Eastern Atlantic to participate in NATO exercises. And conduct a tour of various British and French ports where she received inspections by defense personnel of those countries. She arrived back at New London on 28th of October to undergo upkeep, and then conducted coastal operations until the spring.

This collection houses all U.S. Navy and Marine Corps imagery in RG 330-PS, (Department of Defense) Press Photographs from 1950 to 1960.
In response to the nuclear ICBM threat posed by Sputnik. President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Navy to attempt a submarine transit of the North Pole to prepare for the soon-to-come SLBM weapons system.

On the 25th of April 1958, Nautilus was underway again for the West Coast, now commanded by Commander William R. Anderson, USN. Stopping at San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle, she started her history-making polar transit known as Operation Sunshine, she departed port on the 9th of June and on the 19th of June, she entered the Chukchi Sea, but had to turn back by deep drift ice in the shallow water. On the 28th of June, she arrived at Pearl Harbor to wait for better ice conditions.

On the 23rd of July, she set a course northward. She submerged in the Barrow Sea Valley on the 1st of August and on the 3rd of August. At 2315 EDT she became the first watercraft to reach the North Pole. The ability to navigate at extreme latitudes and without surfacing was because of the new technology of the North American Aviation N6A-1 Inertial Navigation System. A naval modification of the N6A used in their Navaho cruise missile. Moreover, installed on Nautilus and Skate after initial sea trials on USS Compass Island in 1957.

Skate, her sister ship.

From the North Pole, she continued on and after 96 hours and 1,590 nautical miles (2,940 km; 1,830 mi) under the ice, surfaced northeast of Greenland. Having completed the first successful submerged voyage around the North Pole, the technical details of this mission were planned by scientists from the Naval Electronics Laboratory including Dr. Waldo Lyon who accompanied Nautilus as chief scientist and ice pilot.

Navigation beneath the arctic ice sheet was difficult as both magnetic compasses and normal gyrocompasses become completely inaccurate.

USS Nautilus during its initial sea trials, 20 January 1955 : USS Nautilus : World’s First Nuclear Power Submarine
Shortly before the journey the Navy installed a special gyrocompass.

There was a risk that the submarine would become disoriented beneath the ice and that the crew would have to play “longitude roulette”. Commander Anderson had planned to use torpedoes to blow a hole in the ice if the submarine needed to surface.

The most difficult part of the journey was in the Bering Strait. The ice extended as much as 60 feet below sea level. During the initial attempt to go through the Bering Strait. Furthermore, there was insufficient room between the ice and the sea bottom. During the second, successful attempt to pass through the Bering passage. The submarine passed through a known channel close to Alaska which was not the first choice, as the submarine’s chief job was to avoid detection.

The trip beneath the ice cap was an important boost to America as the Soviets had recently launched Sputnik. However, had no nuclear submarine of their own. Furthermore, Nautilus proceeded south from Greenland, a helicopter airlifted Commander Anderson to connect with a transport to Washington, D.C. At a White House ceremony on 8 August, President Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit. And announced that the crew had earned a Presidential Unit Citation.

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USS Nautilus, c. 1965 : USS Nautilus : World’s First Nuclear Power Submarine

At her next port of call, the Isle of Portland, England, she received the Unit Citation, the first ever issued in peace time, and then crossed the Atlantic reaching New London, Connecticut, on the 29th of October. For the remainder of the year, Nautilus operated from her home port of New London.

Following fleet exercises in early 1959, Nautilus entered the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, for her first complete overhaul lasting over a year.

The overhaul was followed by refresher training and on the 24th of October she departed New London for her first deployment with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, returning on the 16th of December, Nautilus spent most of her career assigned to Submarine Squadron 10 at State Pier in New London, Connecticut. Nautilus and other submarines in the squadron made their home tied up alongside the tender, where they received preventive maintenance and, if necessary, repairs, from the well-equipped submarine tender USS Fulton and her crew of machinists.

USS Nautilus (SS-571), the US Navy’s first atomic powered submarine Arriving at New York City in 1958.

Nautilus operated in the Atlantic, conducting evaluation tests for ASW improvements, participating in NATO exercises and during October 1962 took part in the naval quarantine of Cuba during the crisis, she then went on a two-month Mediterranean tour in August 1963. On her return she joined in fleet exercises until entering the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for her second overhaul in 1964.

Furthermore, on the 2nd of May 1966, Nautilus returned to her homeport to resume operations with the Atlantic Fleet. For the next year and a quarter she conducted special operations for ComSubLant and then in August 1967, returned to Portsmouth, for another year’s stay.

During an exercise in 1966 she collided with the aircraft carrier USS Essex on the 10th of November, while diving shallow.
her damage

Following repairs in Portsmouth she conducted exercises off the southeastern seaboard. She returned to New London in December 1968 and operated as a unit of Submarine Squadron 10 for most of the remainder of her career. On the 9th of April 1979, Nautilus set out from Groton, Connecticut on her final voyage under the command of Richard A. Riddell.

In conclusion, she reached Mare Island Naval Shipyard of Vallejo, California on the 26th of May 1979 which was her last day underway. She was then decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on the 3rd of March 1980. Lastly, she would later go to be a famous museum ship and the first nuclear submarine museum ship on display.

USS Nautilus : World’s First Nuclear Power Submarine Written by Harry Gillespie

A port side view looking forward of the nuclear-powered attack submarine ex-USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) as it is towed toward San Francisco by two YTB 760 class large harbor tugs (not visible). The NAUTILUS will be met at treasure Island by the fleet tug USS QUAPAW (ATF 110) for towing to Groton, Connecticut.

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