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USS Nautilus: First Nuclear Submarine


USS Nautilus: First Nuclear Submarine

USS Nautilus during sea trials in 1955

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Nationality & Construction:

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Submarine
  • Shipyard: General Dynamics Electric Boat Division
  • Laid Down: June 14, 1952
  • Launched: January 21, 1954
  • Commissioned: September 30, 1954
  • Fate: Museum ship at Groton, CT

General Characteristics:

  • Displacement: 3,533 tons (surface); 4,092 tons (submerged)
  • Length: 323 ft., 9 in.
  • Beam: 27 ft., 8 in.
  • Draft: 22 ft.
  • Propulsion: Westinghouse S2W naval reactor
  • Speed: 22 knots (surface), 20 knots (submerged)
  • Complement: 13 officer, 92 men
  • Armament: 6 torpedo tubes


In July 1951, after several years of experiments with marine applications for nuclear power, Congress authorized the US Navy to build a nuclear-powered submarine. Design and construction of the new vessel was personally overseen by the "Father of the Nuclear Navy," Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. Designated USS Nautilus on December 12, 1951, the ship's keel was laid at Electric Boat's shipyard at Groton, CT on June 14, 1952. On January 21, 1954, Nautilus was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and launched into the Thames River.

Commissioned on September 30, 1954, with Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson in command, Nautilus remained dockside for the remainder of the year conducting testing and completing fitting out. At 11:00 AM on January 17, 1955, Nautilus' dock lines were released and the vessel departed Groton. Putting to sea, Nautilus historically signaled "Underway on nuclear power." In May, the submarine headed south on sea trials. Sailing from New London to Puerto Rico, the transit was the longest ever by a submerged submarine and achieved the highest sustained submerged speed.

Over the next two years, Nautilus conducted various experiments involving submerged speeds and endurance, many of which showed the anti-submarine equipment of the day to be obsolete. After a cruise under the polar ice, the submarine participated in NATO exercises and visited various European ports. In April 1958, Nautilus sailed for the West Coast to prepare for a voyage to the North Pole. Departing Seattle on June 9, it was forced to abort the trip ten days later when deep draft ice was found in the shallow waters of the Bering Straight.

After sailing to Pearl Harbor to await better ice conditions, Nautilus returned to the Bering Sea on August 1. Submerging, the ship became the first vessel to reach the North Pole on August 3. Continuing on, Nautilus completed its transit of the Artic by surfacing in the Atlantic, northeast of Greenland, 96 hours later. Sailing to Portland, England, Nautilus was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, becoming the first ship to receive the award in peace time. After returning home for an overhaul, the submarine joined the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean in 1960.

Over the remainder of its career, Nautilus participated in a variety of exercises and testing, as well as saw regular deployments to the Mediterranean, West Indies, and the Atlantic. In 1979, the submarine sailed to Mare Island Navy Yard in California for inactivation procedures. On March 3, 1980, Nautilus was decommissioned. Two years later, in recognition of the submarine's unique place in history, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. With this status in place, Nautilus was converted to a museum ship and returned to Groton. It is now part of the US Sub Force Museum.


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