USS Nautilus heralds the Nuclear Age

Posted in America, Science, Sea, Technology, Weapons on Wednesday, 27 July 2011

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This edited article about nuclear submarines originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 997 published on 18 April 1981.

USS Skate, picture, image, illustration

The USS Skate honours the Polar explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, as his ashes are scattered at the North Pole. Picture by Mike Tregenza

The pack-ice split with a crack like gunfire as the huge black submarine thrust her way up out of the depths of the Polar sea. A hatch opened and men appeared on her conning-tower. Her radio antennae were raised, and she transmitted a historic message: “Nautilus-Ninety North.”

The date: 8th August, 1958. The United States Submarine Nautilus had become the first submarine to cross the Arctic Circle, underwater the whole time. And her course had taken her directly beneath the North Pole, which she had passed on 3rd August. It was indeed a momentous voyage.

Launched in 1955, the Nautilus had cost 90 million dollars to build. Her construction was a revolutionary breakthrough. She was the first submarine driven by nuclear power, which gave her a virtually unlimited range at high speed. It also enabled her to remain submerged for the entire time she was at sea. This was another major advance, as it prevented radar detection.

When Nautilus surfaced in the ice at the top of the world, she was on a voyage from the big American naval base at Honolulu, Hawaii, to the British base at Portland, on the south coast of England. It was a top-secret voyage, code-named “Operation Sunshine” – not the most fitting description!

Meanwhile, another United States nuclear submarine, USS Skate, was slipping through the depths of the North Atlantic towards the polar sea. On 9th August, as she approached the Pole, she came to periscope depth to fix her position, and received news of the Nautilus’ progress.

Her crew were naturally disappointed that Nautilus had reached the Pole first, but her mission was not to reach the Pole; it was to “develop techniques for surfacing in ice-packs”.

Skate surfaced for the first time in sheet ice about 65 kilometres on the Pacific side of the Pole, then repeated the operation eight times without mishap.

The following year she returned. This time she surfaced precisely at the North Pole, on 17th March, 1959, out of the peaceful depths into the dark bleakness of an Arctic gale.

A strange, short ceremony then took place. Nearly all the crew alighted on to the ice and erected the national flags of Australia, Britain and the United States. Red flares were fired, and the ship’s company, in parkas and wind-masks, stood to attention as their Commanding Officer read the form of service for the burial of the dead at sea. Finally the CO carried an urn to the edge of the ice and cast its contents to the wind. A rifle squad fired a volley as a last salute to a brave man.

That man was the Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, who had died the year before. In his will he had expressed a desire for his ashes to be scattered at the North Pole. This was quite appropriate for it was Hubert Wilkins who, as early as 1931, had conceived the idea of trying to cross the Polar ice-cap under water. But submarines of that period needed to surface from time to time to recharge their batteries.

Wilkins and the Norwegian oceanographer Harald Sverdrup had carefully reconnoitred the area from the air, looking for “skylights” openings in the ice – where this might be possible. After careful investigation, they decided to go ahead.

Wilkins had an ingenious idea. It seemed feasible to run the submarine along the underside of the ice, like an upside-down sledge, so ski-like wooden runners were fitted to the superstructure of the submarine.

But the idea failed. There were constant mechanical problems as well as frost formation inside the vessel. Finally, the attempt had to be abandoned, although, fortunately, no lives were lost in the exploit.

Nor, as we have seen, was Sir Hubert Wilkins completely cheated of his great ambition. He did get to the Pole under the ice, or at least his mortal remains did, 28 years later, aboard USS Skate. That Skate accomplished her mission so successfully is an indication of the advances that had been made in submarine design in less than 30 years.

The nuclear submarine was an incredible innovation. And its birth and development owed much to the efforts and enthusiasm of one man, US Navy Captain Hyman George Rickover.

Rickover was an electrical and engineering specialist, and submarines had always had a particular fascination for him. Before the Second World War, although officially too old, he managed to get a posting as a submarine engineer officer. During the war he became chief of the electrical section of the Bureau of Ships (the American equivalent of Britain’s Admiralty) and greatly improved its efficiency.

In 1946, Rickover served on a joint military and civilian commission which, due mainly to his arguments, decided that a nuclear submarine was a practical proposition. Inevitably, there were many difficulties to be overcome, because this was an entirely new means of propulsion. But eventually, in January, 1955, USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, was launched.

Since then, activity in this field has been tremendous. In 1960 (the year Britain’s first nuclear sub was launched), USS Triton, the first submarine to be powered by two nuclear reactors, made a voyage which was both impressive and historic. She set out to repeat the first under-water circumnavigation of the world, achieved by Magellan’s expedition in three years between 1519 and 1522. And Triton did it in only 85 days, travelling a distance of over 67,000 kilometres.

She surfaced just twice, the first time off the coast of Argentina to transfer a sick crew-member, and the second off Spain, to honour the country Magellan had sailed from. Strange as it may seem, it was not long before Triton was relegated to the reserve submarine fleet. She was only a few years old, but the pace of technological advance had overtaken her.

And after Triton? In 1978 the United States announced that she would shortly launch the first of 10 “supercolossal” nuclear submarines, USS Trident. Displacing over 16,000 tonnes, she could travel over 640,000 kilometres without refuelling, and would be armed with 24 ballistic missiles with multiple warheads having a range of nearly 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles).

Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century prophecy that a submarine warship could be “the most terrible weapon” had indeed come true.

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