USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

On September 30, 1954, the USS Nautilus submarine became the first commissioned nuclear powered ship in the United States Navy. First authorized by Congress in July 1951, the ship was constructed at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, over a period of eighteen months, and launched on January 21, 1954. Thanks to its nuclear propulsion, this submarine went on to break every speed and distance record for submerged vessels and became the first undersea vessel to complete a submerged trip to the North Pole in August 1958.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover supervised the planning and construction of Nautilus. The vessel was powered by a S2W naval reactor. Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory collaborated on the design of this pressurized water reactor, which had been underway since December 31, 1947.

Nautilus became a model for the development of the American nuclear fleet, and it was used to test the capability of this new technology. In May 1955, Nautilus traveled from New London, Connecticut, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, completely submerged, establishing the record for longest time underwater and highest sustained speed. This achievement was followed by the success of the Nautilus in navigating the arctic ice sheet. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed this record would demonstrate the capacity of a submarine-launched ballistic missile system and respond to the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik. The crossing also led to speculation about the possibilities for nuclear-powered cargo submarines that could establish a Northwest Passage across the world’s main oceans.

USS Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980, having traveled over half a million miles. Converted to a historic ship, it is now a National Historic Landmark and museum in Groton.