70 Years Since the First Nuclear-Powered Submarine

On January 21, 1954, the United States Navy launched the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. This remarkable achievement marked a significant milestone in naval history and technological advancements.

The USS Nautilus was a revolutionary vessel capable of remaining submerged for extended periods without the need for surfacing to recharge its batteries or refuel, as was the case with conventional diesel-electric submarines of the time. This capability was made possible by the nuclear reactor that powered the submarine, providing virtually unlimited endurance underwater.

One of the most notable feats accomplished by the USS Nautilus was its historic journey under the Arctic ice cap, reaching the North Pole in August 1958. This mission, codenamed “Operation Sunshine,” was ordered by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and demonstrated the submarine’s ability to navigate in extreme environments.

The journey to the North Pole was no easy task. The submarine had to navigate through treacherous ice conditions, with some areas having ice extending up to 18 meters (59 feet) below the surface. The crew relied on advanced navigation systems, including inertial navigation technology adapted from the U.S. Air Force’s research aircraft and the Navaho missile program.

The most challenging part of the journey was navigating through the Bering Strait, where the ice was particularly thick and extended deep into the water. During the first attempt, there was not enough space between the ice and the seabed for the submarine to pass through safely. It was only on the second attempt, using a known channel near Alaska, that the USS Nautilus successfully made its way into the Arctic Ocean.

Once in the Arctic, the submarine faced the challenge of navigating without the aid of magnetic compasses or conventional gyroscopes, which became increasingly inaccurate at high latitudes. The crew had to rely on their navigation systems and careful planning to avoid becoming disoriented under the ice.

On August 3, 1958, at 11:15 PM, the USS Nautilus made history by becoming the first vessel to reach the geographic North Pole while submerged. After reaching the North Pole, the submarine continued its journey, traveling a total of 2,940 kilometers (1,830 miles) under the ice before surfacing in northeast Greenland after 96 hours of continuous submerged operation.

The success of the USS Nautilus and its journey to the North Pole demonstrated the capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines and paved the way for future advancements in underwater exploration and naval operations. It also showcased the technological prowess of the United States during the Cold War era.

After its historic voyage, the USS Nautilus continued to serve in the U.S. Navy until its decommissioning in 1980. In 1982, the submarine was relocated to the Naval Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut, where it remains on display as a testament to the remarkable achievements of its crew and the ingenuity of its designers.

Today, the USS Nautilus attracts over 250,000 visitors annually, serving as a reminder of the significant leap forward in submarine technology and the bravery of those who ventured into the unknown depths of the Arctic Ocean.

The launch of the USS Nautilus and its subsequent achievements marked a turning point in naval warfare and exploration, ushering in a new era of nuclear-powered vessels capable of extended underwater operations. It remains an iconic symbol of human ingenuity, perseverance, and the relentless pursuit of pushing the boundaries of what was once thought impossible.