Tuesday, September 30, 2014

60th Anniversary of Submarine Nuclear Power

This Day in History

September 30, 1954

On this day in 1954, the first nuclear powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), was commissioned into the United States Navy.  Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” personally planned and supervised the construction of Nautilus.  The keel was laid at General Dynamics’s Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut on June 14, 1952, by President Harry S. Truman. January 21, 1954, Nautilus was christened by the First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and launched into the Thames River. Nautilus completed 25 years of service to the United States Navy.  During that time the submarine broke records and was put into history books for various missions and cruises due to her nuclear propulsion. 

First Lady Eisenhower christening USS Nautilus.
The S2W Naval Reactor aboard Nautilus was crucial for submarine propulsion because of the reactor’s zero-emission process that consumes no oxygen; was built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Bettis Atomic Laboratory. This nuclear propulsion allowed the submarine to remain submerged far longer than diesel-electric submarines.  In World War II, submarines were encouraged to surface every 12 to 36 hours to replenish their oxygen.  After the war the GUPPY (Greater Underwater Propulsion Power) program allowed submarine to stay submerged for over 60 days, but they had to remain within 50 feet of the water’s surface. 

Balao Class Submarine
USS Nautilus
January 17, 1955, Nautilus was put to sea for the first time and sent the message “Underway on nuclear power,” at 11:00 a.m. The commanding officer was Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson.  Then in May, the submarine traveled from New London, Connecticut to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Nautilus covered 1,381 miles in less than 90 hours.  At this time, this was the longest submerged cruise by a submarine and at the highest sustained speed ever recorded. 

The crew earned the Presidential Unit Citation with “Operation Sunshine” in 1958.  This operation was in response to the USSR’s satellite Sputnik.  President Eisenhower ordered the Navy to attempt a submarine transit of the North Pole to gain credibility for the soon-to-come SLBM (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile) weapons system, which is capable of being launched from submarines.
“For outstanding achievement in completing the first voyage in history across the top of the world, by cruising under the Arctic cap from the Bering Strait to the Greenland Sea.”

August 3, 1958, Nautilus passed beneath the geographic North Pole under the command of Commander William R. Anderson.  Thanks to the nuclear reactor, Nautilus could travel to locations previously beyond the limits of submarines.

The final voyage of Nautilus was from Groton, Connecticut, to Mare Island Shipyard, Vallejo, California.  May 26, 1979, was the submarine’s last day underway.  After 25 years of service and over half a million miles steamed the submarine was decommissioned on March 3, 1980.  In 1982, Nautilus became a National Historic Landmark.  Today visitors can see Nautilus floating in the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. 

Author: Allison Hiblong


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