On August 3, 1958, the world’s first operational nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), became the first vessel to complete a submerged transit of the geographical North Pole. Sharing names with Captain Nemo’s fictional submarine in Jules Verne’s classic 1870 science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and named after another USS Nautilus (SS-168) that served with distinction in World War II, the new atomic powered Nautilus was authorized in 1951, with laying down for construction in 1952 and launched in January 1954, attended by Mamie Eisenhower, First Lady of the United States, wife of 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and commissioned the following September into the United States Navy. Final construction was completed in 1955.
Because her nuclear propulsion allowed her to remain submerged far longer than the then current diesel-electric submarines previously, she broke many records in her first years of operation, and traveled to locations previously beyond the limits of submarines. In operation, she revealed a number of limitations in her design and construction. This information was used to improve subsequent submarines.
Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. The submarine has been preserved as a museum ship at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut, where the vessel receives around 250,000 visitors per year.
In July 1951, the United States Congress authorized the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine for the U.S. Navy, which was planned and personally supervised by Captain (later Admiral) Hyman G. Rickover, USN, known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” On December 12, 1951, the U.S. Department of the Navy announced that the submarine would be called Nautilus, the fourth U.S. Navy vessel officially so named. The boat carried the hull number SSN-571. The Nautilus benefited from the GUPPY improvements to the American Gato-, Balao-, and Tench-class submarines.
Nautilus‘s keel was laid at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut by Harry S. Truman on June 14, 1952. She was christened on January 21, 1954, and launched into the Thames River, sponsored by Mamie Eisenhower. Nautilus was commissioned on September 30, 1954, under the command of Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, USN.
Nautilus was powered by the Submarine Thermal Reactor (STR), later redesignated the S2W reactor, a pressurized water reactor produced for the U.S. Navy by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, operated by Westinghouse, developed the basic reactor plant design used in Nautilus after being given the assignment on December 31, 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 is the basis for nearly all of the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine and surface combat ships, and was adapted by other countries for naval nuclear propulsion. The first actual prototype (for Nautilus) was constructed and tested by the Argonne National Laboratory in 1953 at the S1W facility, part of the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.
Nautilus‘ ship’s patch was designed by The Walt Disney Company, and her wardroom currently displays a set of tableware made of zirconium, as the reactor core was partly made of zirconium.
Following her commissioning, Nautilus remained dockside for further construction and testing. On the morning of January 17, 1955, at 11 am EST, Nautilus‘ first Commanding Officer, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, ordered all lines cast off and signaled the memorable and historic message, “Underway On Nuclear Power.” On May 10, she headed south for shakedown. Submerged throughout, she traveled 1,100 nautical miles (2,000 km; 1,300 mi) from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico and covered 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 km; 1,400 mi) in less than ninety hours. At the time, this was the longest submerged cruise by a submarine and at the highest sustained speed (for at least one hour) ever recorded.
From 1955 to 1957, Nautilus continued to be used to investigate the effects of increased submerged speeds and endurance. The improvements rendered the progress made in anti-submarine warfare during World War II virtually obsolete. Radar and anti-submarine aircraft, which had proved crucial in defeating submarines during the war, proved ineffective against a vessel able to move quickly out of an area, change depth quickly and stay submerged for very long periods.
On February 4, 1957, Nautilus logged her 60,000th nautical mile (110,000 km; 69,000 mi), matching the endurance of her namesake, the fictional Nautilus described in Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. In May, she departed for the Pacific Coast to participate in coastal exercises and the fleet exercise, operation “Home Run,” which acquainted units of the Pacific Fleet with the capabilities of nuclear submarines.
Nautilus returned to New London, Connecticut, on July 21 and departed again on August 19 for her first voyage of 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 km; 1,400 mi) 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 was inspected by defense personnel of those countries. She arrived back at New London on October 28, underwent upkeep, and then conducted coastal operations until the spring.
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 gain credibility for the soon-to-come SLBM weapons system. On April 25, 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 began her history-making polar transit, Operation “Sunshine”, as she departed the latter port on June 9. On June 19, she entered the Chukchi Sea, but was turned back by deep drift ice in those shallow waters. On June 28, she arrived at Pearl Harbor to await better ice conditions.
By July 23, 1958, her wait was over, and she set a course northward. She submerged in the Barrow Sea Valley on August 1 and on August 3, at 2315 (EDT) she became the first watercraft to reach the geographic North Pole. The ability to navigate at extreme latitudes and without surfacing was enabled by the technology of the North American Aviation N6A-1 Inertial Navigation System, a naval modification of the N6A used in the Navaho cruise missile; it had been installed on Nautilus and Skate after initial sea trials on USS Compass Island in 1957. 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. Above 85°N both magnetic compasses and normal gyrocompasses become inaccurate. A special gyrocompass built by Sperry Rand was installed shortly before the journey. 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 considered using 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 (18 m) below sea level. During the initial attempt to go through the Bering Strait, 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 (this was not the first choice, as the submarine wanted to avoid detection).
The trip beneath the ice cap was an important boost to America as the Soviets had recently launched Sputnik, but had no nuclear submarine of their own. During the address announcing the journey, the president mentioned that one day nuclear cargo submarines might use that route for trade.
As Nautilus proceeded south from Greenland, a helicopter airlifted Commander Anderson to connect with transport to Washington, D.C. At a White House ceremony on August 8, President Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit and announced that the crew had earned a Presidential Unit Citation.
At her next port of call, the Isle of Portland, England, she received the Unit Citation, the first ever issued in peace time, from American Ambassador J. H. Whitney, and then crossed the Atlantic reaching New London, Connecticut on October 29. 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 (May 28, 1959 – August 15, 1960). Overhaul was followed by refresher training and on October 24 she departed New London for her first deployment with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, returning to her home-port 16 December.
Nautilus spent most of her career assigned to SubRon Ten (Submarine Squadron Ten) at State Pier in New London, Connecticut. The squadron commander was stationed aboard USS Fulton, a submarine tender also stationed at State Pier. 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 Fulton and her crew of machinists, millwrights, and other craftsmen.
Nautilus operated in the Atlantic, conducting evaluation tests for ASW improvements, participating in NATO exercises and, during October 1962, in the naval quarantine of Cuba, until she headed east again for 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 January 17, 1964.
On May 2, 1966, Nautilus returned to her homeport to resume operations with the Atlantic Fleet, and at some point around that month, logged her 300,000th nautical mile (560,000 km; 350,000 mi) underway. 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 10 November, while diving shallow. 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 April 9, 1979, Nautilus set out from Groton, Connecticut on her final voyage under the command of Richard A. Riddell. She reached Mare Island Naval Shipyard of Vallejo, California on May 26, 1979, her last day underway. She was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on March 3, 1980.
Toward the end of her service, the hull and sail of Nautilus vibrated sufficiently that sonar became ineffective at more than 4 knots (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph) speed. As noise generation is extremely undesirable in submarines, this made the vessel vulnerable to detection. Lessons learned from this problem were applied to later nuclear submarines.
Nautilus was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Secretary of the Interior on May 20, 1982.
She was named as the official state ship of Connecticut in 1983. Following an extensive conversion at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Nautilus was towed back to Groton, Connecticut, under the command of Captain John Almon, arriving on July 6, 1985. On April 11, 1986, Nautilus opened to the public as part of the Submarine Force Library and Museum.
Nautilus now serves as a museum of submarine history operated by the Naval History and Heritage Command. The ship underwent a five-month preservation in 2002 at the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics, at a cost of approximately $4.7 million ($6.39 million in present-day terms). Nautilus attracts some 250,000 visitors annually to her present berth near Naval Submarine Base New London.
Nautilus celebrated the 50th anniversary of her commissioning on September 30, 2004, with a ceremony that included a speech from Vice Admiral Eugene P Wilkinson, the first Commanding Officer of Nautilus, and a designation of the ship as an American Nuclear Society National Nuclear Landmark.
Visitors may tour the forward two compartments, with guidance from an automated system. Despite similar alterations to exhibit the engineering spaces, tours aft of the control room are not permitted due to safety and security concerns.
The United States Post Office Department issued Scott #1128 — a 4-cent stamp to mark the conquest of the Arctic by surface and by sea — through the Cresson, Pennsylvania, post office on April 6, 1959. The stamp marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Admiral Robert Edwin Peary at the North Pole. It also notes the history-making feat of USS Nautilus almost fifty years later in making the first under-the-sea crossing at the North Pole.
Designed by George Samerjan, the bright greenish blue stamp features the upper portion of the globe, with the North Pole area emphasized. The global area is divided horizontally, with the light upper segment indicative of surface transportation and the dark lower portion representative of underwater exploration. Superimposed on the upper portion of the design is a man and his dog-drawn sled. Below is a view of the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus. Across the top of the design and against an uncolored background is the inscription ARCTIC EXPLORATIONS. Directly below, to the right, is 1909 in dark Roman lettering, Above the Nautilus, to the left, is 1959, and below the submarine is U. S. POSTAGE, both in white Roman. The value 4c appears at the lower right in dark Roman with white outline.
The stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary process, electric-eye perforated in a gauge of 11 x 10½, and issued in panes of fifty stamps each. An initial printing of 120 million stamps was authorized with 131,260,200 actually issued.