World's First Nuclear-Powered Submarine Celebrates 50 Years
by JOC Michael Foutch, USN

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Bunting drapes Nautilus for the launching as reporters and film cameras are stationed in a nearby press box to document the ceremony. What began as a fog-shrouded morning turned into bright sunshine as dawn broke on the Navy’s nuclear age.

Today, nuclear-powered submarines patrol the globe, navigate under the polar icecap, and operate underwater for weeks on intelligence-gathering, reconnaissance, and covert strike missions. While powering ships at sea by splitting the atom will never be entirely “routine,” at least it no longer inspires excited headlines and admiring gasps from an incredulous public.

Less than a decade after nuclear weapons ended World War II in the Pacific, atomic scientists succeeded in overcoming the challenge of designing a reactor small enough to fit within a submarine and harnessing that same awesome energy to generate sufficient power for operating a ship beneath the surface almost indefinitely.

That effort to design the world’s first nuclear-powered ship led directly to the development of most of the world’s nuclear power plants, which today offer a cheap and environmentally-safe alternative for generating electricity.

“Underway on nuclear power”

That simple message pictured on the opposite page from Nautilus’s commanding officer, then-CDR Eugene P. Wilkinson, on 17 January 1955 represented far more than a skipper’s routine report to his squadron superiors. It announced a new era in naval warfare and in one stroke made obsolete virtually all other submarines around the world.

Fifty years later, USS Nautilus still exerts a powerful influence on the imagination of submarine Sailors. Even as we savor the excitement of our new Virginia-class, the promise of integrated power systems, and the prospect of technologies yet unimagined, the example of Nautilus – “underway on nuclear power” – continues to remind us that all things are possible.

JOC Foutch, from Submarine Warfare Division Public Affairs, is a Military Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE.

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In addition to ADM Rickover (far right), other legends of the Submarine Force were present at the ceremony in Groton. Then-CDR Ned Beach (far left, holding gloves) was the Naval Aide to President Eisenhower from 1953 to 1957. Run Silent, Run Deep, his gripping novel about the sacrifices of the silent service in World War II, was published one year after the launching.
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First Lady Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower – holding the red roses – was the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and served as the ship’s sponsor for Nautilus. She christened the ship in the traditional ceremony of smashing a bottle of champagne on the stem as it slid into the river. Hundreds of well-wishers gather at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut, on 21 January 1954 to witness the launching of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the event that brought the U.S. Submarine Force into the nuclear age. 
How fare the Submarine Force has come in the 50 years since Nautilus took the water!
Fall 2004 Cover