By Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Amdur, Director, Submarine Force Museum and Officer-in-Charge, Historic Ship Nautilus
For the cost of a laptop today, the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program began 75 years ago.
It could only have been a Navy physicist who upon observing the energy created by the splitting of uranium atoms, would also wonder if that could be used for propulsion at sea. It was in 1939 when Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) scientists met to determine if a “fission chamber” could generate steam to operate a turbine to propel a submarine. Dr. Ross Gunn, head of the Mechanics and Electricity Division, asked for $1,500 to pay for initial research. The funds were approved, and so began the Navy’s nuclear fission program.
The research took a back seat in 1942 when members of NRL’s nuclear program assisted with the Manhattan Project that would unleash the power of nuclear fission in the form of the atom bombs that would end World War II.
After the war, work on a nuclear propulsion system resumed in 1946 when then-Capt. Hyman G. Rickover, an engineering officer, joined the post-war Manhattan Project’s power reactor program at Oak Ridge, Tenn. He had a reputation as an “acerbic” personality, but also the determination to bulldoze through bureaucracy. He berated a team of scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee in Sept. 1946 after they determined it would be 20 years before there could be a demonstration of atomic power for practical uses.
A Jan. 9, 1947 report to Chief of Naval Operations Chester W. Nimitz stated submarines capable of operating submerged for unlimited periods could be possible by the mid-1950s, “provided nuclear power is made available for submarine propulsion.”
The report was approved by Nimitz the following day. Rickover oversaw design of a nuclear-propelled submarine, and Congress approved it in the Fiscal Year 1952 shipbuilding program. President Harry S. Truman would sign the keel for the future USS Nautilus on June 14, 1952. Rickover had been involved for a mere six years.
The one of the biggest decisions with Nautilus was not that she would be powered by nuclear energy, but whether to make her an experimental, unarmed test vehicle or a fully operational warship. On Jan. 21, 1954, the massive 319-foot submarine with a 28-foot beam was launched with a crack of a champagne bottle wielded by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Nautilus was built for both comfort and speed. Accommodations included 2 and 3-berth staterooms for the 12 officers, a single room for the captain, and a wardroom. For the more than 90 enlisted men, each had their own rack, a mess that could seat 36 of the crew, or up to 50 for movies and lectures. A juke-box was hooked to the boat’s hi-fi system, along with an ice cream machine and soda dispenser. Better yet, the nuclear-powered system would provide unlimited fresh water and air conditioning.
The business end of Nautilus featured six torpedo tubes and carried 26 torpedoes. She was also outfitted with auxiliary diesel generators and a battery to “bring home” the boat if needed.
Nautilus was christened into the fleet 60 years ago today, Sept. 30, 1954, at a pierside ceremony at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Connecticut. At 11 a.m. Jan. 17, 1955, Nautilus moved from the pier, and shortly afterward, Nautilus’ commanding officer, Cmdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson, ordered the following signal sent: “UNDERWAY ON NUCLEAR POWER.”
Nautilus would achieve a number of firsts during sea trials, including the fastest submerged transit undertaken by a submarine: 90 hours from New London, Conn., to San Juan, Puerto Rico at an average speed of 16 knots (the previous record for that speed had been for a single hour). In exercises and war games with the fleet, Nautilus was nearly invincible. She could easily maneuver to either close on an enemy or escape one, all while remaining submerged. And she could outrun many of the Navy’s destroyers and all of the anti-submarine homing torpedoes at that time.
Refueled four times during her 25 years in commission, Nautilus would sail more than a half-million nautical miles, most of them submerged. In 1958, Nautilus completed a secret mission requested by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to prove American technology had not taken a backseat to the Soviet space program. In a mission called Operation Sunshine, the nuclear-powered submarine passed under the North Pole on Aug. 3, 1958 – the first watercraft to reach the geographic “top” of the world – during a trip from Pearl Harbor to England and under the Soviet’s collective noses through the Bering Strait.
Nautilus and her crew earned the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC), the first-ever awarded in peace time. Her commanding officer, Capt. William R. Anderson, was whisked away from Nautilus when she resurfaced near Iceland, brought to a White House ceremony, where Eisenhower would announce the success of Operation Sunshine. The president then presented Anderson with a Legion of Merit to go with his crew’s PUC.
Nautilus’ first deployment was with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, departing from New London Oct. 24, 1960. Upon her return, she operated in the Atlantic, participating in NATO exercises and in Oct. 1962, the naval quarantine of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For the next 13 years, she would be involved in a variety of developmental testing programs while continuing to serve alongside many of the more modern nuclear-powered submarines.
Decommissioned and stricken from the Navy rolls in 1980, Nautilus’ future was assured when the Secretary of the Interior designated the submarine as a National Historic Landmark May 20, 1982. After a historic ship conversion, Nautilus opened to the public April 11, 1986, to continue her service as an example of the Navy’s pioneering role in harnessing nuclear power, as the first in a fleet of nuclear-powered ships, and as steward of the American submarine force’s reputation for and history of operational excellence.
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