In the midst of a constant quest for technological superiority on the battlefield of the Cold War, the United States took a large leap forward with the christening of the USS Nautilus on January 21, 1954. By developing a nuclear-powered submarine, the US Navy gained mission capabilities their Soviet counterparts would spend four years scrambling to catch up with.
The process toward developing a nuclear-powered vessel began at the end of 1947. The culmination of the Manhattan Project — two atomic bombs dropped on Japan to end World War II — gave the American military a tremendous understanding of the sheer power available through a controlled nuclear reaction. Further, intelligence efforts in Europe as the Allies rolled back Nazi forces all over the continent revealed the extent of German reactor technology. Moving swiftly to snap up scientists who worked on the project, the US snagged a slight advantage over the Soviet Union when many of those scientists received jobs in research facilities owned by the federal government.
Mesmerized by the possibilities, Chief of Naval Operations Chester Nimitz and Admiral Hyman G. Rickover wondered what it would take to shrink reactor technology for use on a ship. Rickover took a lead role, working in conjunction with Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago to design the S1W reactor prototype. Bouncing back and forth between the Bureau of Ships and the National Reactor Testing Station, he helped engineers meld the needs of the powerplant to those of the submarine design and vice versa.
By May 1953, the S1W was being pushed through tests of its ability to propel a boat. Whereas diesel-powered hulls required regular trips to the surface to breathe in oxygen, the nuclear-based tests showed the capability to remain submerged for 100 hours within weeks. With constant resupply — as the Germans had attempted to create in the latter stages of World War II — the submarine could theoretically stay underwater until its hull was near collapse, so long as the crew was willing. The ability to penetrate enemy waters and hide for months pleased Rickover to no end.
On January 21, 1954, in the shipyards of Groton, Connecticut, the First Lady of the United States, Mamie Eisenhower, smashed a bottle of champagne against the Nautilus’ bow as it slipped away from the dock into the Thames River. The era of the nuclear navy — and later, electric power for cities and towns — had officially begun. Almost a year later, Commander Eugene Wilkinson stepped aboard the bridge for the first operational mission, sending a simple message to commemorate the occasion: “Underway on nuclear power.”
One of the fastest ships in the entire fleet, the Nautilus spent most of the next several years testing the limits of submerged travel. Records set during World War II for mission length and sustained speed fell immediately. Tactics once used to track submarines were forced to adapt to new levels of maneuverability and endurance. As the Soviets worked furiously to catch up, American leadership planned a dangerous mission to test the limits of the new boat.
Nine months after Sputnik I circled the Earth, the US Navy decided to demonstrate its capabilities in the opposite direction: the crew of the Nautilus would pass under the North Pole and appear on the other side. When she surfaced off the coast of Greenland on August 5, 1958, the submarine did more than just astound observers — the likelihoood of Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles became inevitable. Soon, nuclear propulsion systems would not be the only radioactive objects at sea. There would be nuclear weapons, too.
Also On This Day:
1525 – The Swiss Anabaptist Movement is founded in Zurich, a product of the Protestant Reformation
1643 – Abel Tasman, Dutch explorer and the first European to reach much of the South Pacific, reaches Tonga
1793 – King Louis XVI of France is guillotined as part of the French Revolution
1911 – Prince Albert I of Monaco launches the Monte Carlo Rally car race
2008 – Stock markets crash worldwide on Black Monday, launching the Great Recession
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January 21 1793 – King Louis XVI Of France Is Guillotined As Part Of The French Revolution