The first nuclear submarine was the USS Nautilus (1955-1979) which featured numerous technological advancements. The vessel set the standard for how nuclear submarines are built today.
Nuclear submarines have been a constant in global warfare for most of us, but where did the first one originate?
The first nuclear submarine was the USS Nautilus (SSN-571). It was commissioned in 1952 and served until 1980 before it was converted into a museum ship. The USS Nautilus was revolutionary in many ways and laid the groundwork for nuclear subs. Its influence can still be felt today.
Before we get into the life and times of the world's first nuclear submarine, let's first talk about what a nuclear submarine is and what sets it apart from a regular one.
What Is A Nuclear Submarine?
These submarines work with the assistance of nuclear generators. They obtain their energy creation by splitting atoms, and the resulting heat spins turbines to generate energy. Nuclear submarines pull in seawater and purify it. This water is not only used for steam as it also serves as drinking water for the crew after the harmful bacteria and salt is removed from it.
Early nuclear submarines such as the USS Nautilus had problems with their noise output which made them easier targets. However, this flaw was corrected as the technology progressed.
What Are The Advantages of Nuclear Power?
The main advantage of nuclear power is endurance. Traditional submarines such as those used in the World Wars require regular resurfacing to take in oxygen. Whilst there are advantages to traditional submarines, nuclear vessels are far more preferable for long distances and prolonged time under the surface.
Now that we've established what nuclear submarines are and why they're important, let's back to the story of the USS Nautilus.
History of the USS Nautilus
What would be the world's first nuclear submarine was conceptualized in 1950 - just five years after the conclusion of the Second World War and a few years before the height of the Korean War.
The United States Congress, realising the speed of nuclear development, quickly ordered a nuclear submarine for the U.S. Navy. The vessel would combine the latest developments in submarine technology whilst also implementing nuclear capabilities. In June 1952, the keel of the Nautilus was officially laid.
After construction finished, the Nautilus measured 324ft (98.7m) long with an 88ft beam. She could carry a crew of over 100 officers and was capable of reaching the impressive speed of 20 knots (or 23 mph).
The world's first nuclear submarine was born. Next, let's explore the career of the Nautilus and investigate its legacy.
The Career Of The USS Nautilus
Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of President Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady of the United States, broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the USS Nautilus to celebrate its completion. The submarine was completed years ahead of schedule and in January 1955, the sub ran on nuclear power for the very first time.
The early years of the Nautilus saw it break several records. In the summer of 1958, the submarine completed the first-ever underwater trip to the North Pole. The achievement was notable as it took place at the height of the USA's technological rivalry with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had recently launched the landmark Sputnik space satellite, but they did not yet have a nuclear submarine.
The North Pole expedition was named Operation Sunshine and the journey saw the vessel travel 1,830 miles under the ice - shattering submarine records at the time.
The vessel resurfaced near the coast of Greenland. The operation was not without difficulty, though, as the Nautilus found navigation beneath the ice sheet to be very complex. There were fears the submarine would lose oxygen and the generators would freeze. The crew at one point even considered using torpedoes to shatter through the ice if the crew were disoriented and lost.
However, Operation Sunshine proved to be a huge success. The crew of the Nautilus then travelled to England before returning to Connecticut.
Space and the ocean were, and still are, considered the final frontiers of human exploration and the USA's claim of developing the first nuclear sub went a long way in claiming their dominance over Soviet Russia.
Later Career and Retirement
Most of the career of the Nautilus was spent assigned to Submarine Squadron 10 in Connecticut. She participated in NATO exercises and conducted numerous tours of Europe.
On 9 April 1979, the Nautilus undertook its last voyage. Setting out from Groton, Connecticut, the vessel travelled to Vallejo, California, and reached the West Coast on May 26. It brought an end to the historic career of the USS Nautilus and concluded the chapter of the world's first nuclear submarine.
The crew members who participated in Operation Sunshine were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation ribbon in recognition of their efforts. In the last years of its career, the USS Nautilus was plagued by a noise problem which made it a larger and larger target for enemy submarines.
Where is the USS Nautilus Today?
After its retirement, the USS Nautilus was converted into a museum ship and was declared a National Historic Landmark in May 1982.
Today, the ship attracts thousands of visitors from around the world and it can be found in Groton, Connecticut - the city where the vessel spent most of its illustrious career.
The submarine is regularly renovated to keep it in pristine condition. Over 250,000 people visit it every year and it continues to be an icon of nuclear technology. Though it never saw service, the vessel was considered one of the United States' crown jewels.
The USS Nautilus was a vital part of submarine technology. Its career may be long over, but its legacy on modern submarine-building is still felt.
And so concludes the story of the world's first nuclear submarine. Almost 25 years of service and thousands of miles travelled made the USS Nautilus an icon.