NR-1: The beginning


In honor of the museum’s newest upcoming exhibit, we will be sharing stories of the Research and Recovery vehicle, NR-1 and the crew that sailed on her.

After the tragic loss of the USS THRESHER (SS 593) and all that served on her, the Navy designed rescue vehicles that were built with one mission in mind – to “find and save the lives of sailors trapped on crippled subs.” This led to the creation of the Deep Submergence Systems Project and its centerpiece, the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV), a piloted mini submarine
In the early 1960’s, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover began kicking around the idea of a making a nuclear powered DSRV that could drive (yep, drive) along the ocean floor. Rickover believed that the inclusion of nuclear power would blow the doors open on the future possibilities of the submarine force. He knew that the usage of compact nuclear reactors would lead to vehicles that “would not depend on batteries and could be entirely self-contained.” There was only one question – would it be logistically possible? To find out, Rickover “ordered parameters drawn up for a small submarine that could go deeper than any current manned sub, and with a nuclear reactor powering it, could stay underwater indefinitely.”

After months filled with secrecy, President Lyndon Johnson, on 18 April, 1965, announced that the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission were developing a “nuclear-powered deep-submergence research and ocean-engineering vehicle.” This announcement would essentially be the last the general public and most of the Navy would hear of the project. Adm. Rickover’s baby, which he deemed the NR-1 (named after his Naval Reactors division) would go on to be one of the Nation’s greatest assets and one of its best kept secrets.

From the beginning, NR-1 was intended to be unlike any other vessel the Navy owned. NR-1 was designed to undergo “prolonged operation on or near sea beds at depths of 3,000 feet.” She was small – a mere 145 feet long, (96 feet long inside its pressure hull), with a beam of only 12.5 feet. A tight fit, indeed.

Unable to operate alone, she had a dedicated support ship. With a top speed of 4 knots, the support ship normally towed her to and from the area of operation. The ship would also replenish NR-1’s compressed air system, which was used for blowing the ballast tanks for surfacing, refilling SCUBA equipment, and emergency air supply.

As expected, NR-1 housed a compact nuclear propulsion plant. While this promised extended periods undersea, NR-1 was limited to 30 days due its limited capacity for food and air. To generate oxygen, NR-1 used a chlorate “candle” system. (In this system, canisters containing a mixture of powdered Sodium Chlorate and powdered Iron are ignited. Once ignited, some of the Iron burns supplying the necessary heat for a chemical reaction. In the reaction, Sodium Chlorate breaks down, creating Sodium Chloride (table salt), Iron Oxide, and Oxygen.) Carbon monoxide and Hydrogen gas were removed from the ship via a catalytic converter. Carbon dioxide was removed through replaceable lithium hydroxide canisters.

To aid in its recovery missions, NR-1 was also equipped with a manipulator – enabling it to handle objects as small as 8 inches in diameter. It also had a claw for handling larger objects and a water jet system “jetter” which was used to uncover or bury objects on the sea bottom. The ship had three viewports which enabled the crew to look forward and downward. Twenty five extreme lights, a low light level (LLL) camera, LLL Zoom cameras, a color video camera, electronic still camera, and various sensors aided in its viewing and sensory gathering capacity. NR-1 used GPS (Global Positioning System) for its near surface navigation and Doppler Sonar for when it was near bottom. It was also equipped with acoustical and laser line scan systems which enabled it to accurately track and map regions, as well as its position to them. It also had two pairs of thrusters, which enabled her to maintain her depth without any forward movement. It could move laterally, and rotating in its own length. Most surprisingly, it had two retractable rubber-tired wheels, (yep, wheels), which enabled it to be supported on the sea bottom.

NR-1 had all of these things and more, all of which led her to carry our missions that otherwise would have been impossible. Please look to the next issues of the Klaxon, where we will take a closer look at some of the NR-1’s most impressive and secret missions.
NR-1 2

Information & photos for the NR-1 article were garnered from http://www.rand.og, and

    Dark Waters: An insider’s Account of the NR-1, the Cold War’s Undercover Nuclear Sub

, by Lee Vyborny and Don Davis.
While the book is currently out of print, it is being published by the SFLMA and will be available for purchase shortly.