“They [Nautilus and an airship 126719] were undertaken at a time when the Arctic was considered the last earth frontier. Both the nuclear-powered submarine and the airship were exotic, new, yet-to-be-proven additions to the fleet.” – Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN (Ret.) Nautilus was unlike any other submarine that had come before. Nautilus had unlimited power from her reactor, was able to distill her own drinking water, recycle its own air and run an air conditioning system. She sailed away from Groton with an ice cream machine, a washer machine and the crew could shower every day. When Nautilus reached Greenland in August 1958, she had sailed more than 70 hours submerged. Operation Sunshine had changed the landscape for submarines forever. The impacts of Nautilus have been far-reaching, and she stands today at the museum as a testament to innovation.
In May of 1958, before Nautilus went on her fateful mission, Proceedings magazine described what crossing the Arctic would mean for the United States. This was of course based off previous missions (Operation Sunshine was a secret). They wrote that “Employing characteristics stealth, a missle-launching submarine can reach and maintain position in the ice pack without its presence being known. The submarine can remain undetected submarine can remain undetected indefinitely.” They added that, “A thorough knowledge of the region is a prerequisite to using it to fullest advantage and to understanding its relationship and effect on the rest of the world.” Proceedings Magazine was right in their assessment. The data pulled from Nautilus’ mission led to new technologies. Her crew returned home with more than 11,000 soundings and other measurements of the polar crossing. Priceless data, including water temperatures, optical transparency, and electrical conductivity have been compiled for military and civilian science. The inertial guidance that became a standard for navigation and scientific research below the polar ice caps was now possible. The popularity of the mission-inspired children around the world to go into careers in science and technology. The Arctic could now become a staging area for submarine operations. During the rest of the Cold War, both U.S. and Russian submarines used the waters of the Arctic to keep an eye on the other. In the wake of Nautilus’ accomplishments came the Polaris submarines that began being deployed in the 1960’s. It was the Polaris program that provided a deterrent to Soviet nuclear aggression. A program that would not have been possible without Nautilus and her advancements. In March of the following year after Nautilus’ trip, the USS Skate became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. After breaking through, her crew spread the ashes of Sit Hubert Wilkins as he had requested.
In 1960, USS Triton circumnavigated the world. A new world of exploration had been ushered in by Nautilus’ polar crossing. Submarines would continue to use the route for transit since it was now the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Since Nautilus, submarines have used upward-looking sonar to monitor the thickness of the ice to determine breakthrough points. One advantage of these arctic missions is that we have been able to track the noticeable difference in ice thickness due to warming air and sea temperatures. When Nautilus was first launched, President Eisenhower believed that nuclear-powered cargo submarines could use the Arctic Ocean for transport. While this hasn’t happened, the diminishment of Arctic ice means the region is seeing an expansion of Arctic shipping, oil, gas, and mineral exploration. To continue arctic efforts, the Navy takes part in a biennial exercise known as ICEX where submarines test weapons, surface through the ice and perform other training. Capt. Whitescarver, Naval Submarine Base Commanding officer said that “by 2020, middle of 2025, we’re going to start spending more money on how we participate in the Arctic.”
Besides the scientific advancements made since 1958, Nautilus proved that nuclear power could be harnessed. Not one accident since Nautilus went on her journey has been attributed to nuclear propulsion. This is a record that the Navy is extremely proud of. She proved that anything was possible and with Rickover behind the Nuclear program, the safety measures put in place have been a shining example of what science can accomplish when handled wisely. By her end, Nautilus had logged more than 50,000 miles and shattered records for submerged distance and speed. When she was decommissioned, it was said that “The Nautilus belonged to Rickover, even more than to the nation that had paid for her, more than to the Navy that operated her, more than to the shipyard that built her. And the submarine was the world’s most revolutionary undersea craft to go to sea since the end of the previous century. The Nautilus was the world’s first ‘true submersible.’” This year, as we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Polar crossing, a Nautilus reunion brought together those who had served aboard the ship that had forever changed the Navy. John Yuill in an article by The Day stated that it took 20 years to put what their crew did into perspective. “I sometimes think, what were we, nuts?” The ice pack is easier to navigate today due to ice melt, so in 1958, they might have been. At the ceremony for the reunion, Retired Navy Adm. Steven White said, “Some of those crews were top notch (referring to commands he led after Nautilus). But for you Nautilus guys here, none of them compare to you.” While every crew is compromised by amazing sailors, the Nautilus crew from that summer in 1958 will forever hold a place in the nation’s heart. Following her decommissioning, Nautilus was sent home to Groton to become a museum ship. She also would become Connecticut’s state ship in honor of her accomplishments. She will always be First and Finest.