Steamship Sunday – First Nuclear-Powered Submarine Commissioned

Steamship Sunday


Mamie Eisenhower, wife of President Dwight Eisenhower, breaks the bottle of champagne across the bow of U.S.S. Nautilus, SSN 571, on 21 January 1954

The World’s First Nuclear-Powered Submarine, U.S.S. Nautilus Launched 30 September 1954

On 30 September, 1954 in the Groten, Connecticut shipyards of the Electric Boat Company, a division of defense contractor General Dynamics, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine was commissioned. U.S.S. Nautilus, SSN 571, the third submarine in the U.S. Navy to bear the name, was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, wife of World War II hero and now president of the U.S., General Dwight Eisenhower. It was the Electric Boat Company that built the first submarine in the U.S. Navy which entered service in 1900.


The keel of Nautilus had been laid on 14 June, 1952 with then-president Harry Truman officiating. Eighteen months later she was launched. She first ran on power generated by her nuclear power plant on 17 January 1955.


When launched, she was the largest submarine in the U.S. Navy. Compare her specifications against a Baloa-class submarine from World War II:

SS-385, U.S.S. Baloa
Length: 312′
Displacement: 2,400 tons (submerged)
Speed: 20-1/4 knots (surfaced); 8-3/4 knots submerged
Crew: 80 Officers and men

SSN-571 Nautilus
Length: 323 feet
Displacement: 4,092 tons submerged
Speed: 22 knots (surfaced) 23 knots (submerged)
Crew: 104 Officers and men


U.S.S. Nautilus running under nuclear power.

Credit for the development of the U.S. nuclear-powered submarines goes to Admiral Hyman Rickover. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922, Rickover went to sea for several years before earning a 1929 master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University. During World War II, he served effectively as head of the Bureau of Ships electrical section. Rickover became the driving force in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, against sometimes strenuous opposition. He retired after 63 years of active duty in 1981 and died in 1986. Rickover was a controversial figure. He had a prickly and demanding personality. Once he conceived of the nuclear Navy, he drove himself and others hard and relentlessly to achieve it. As nuclear-powered ships entered service in the Navy, he insisted that he be on board the ship during its first run, wanting to demonstrate the safety of the ship. (Detractors often feared that nuclear-powered ships would be unsafe.)


Above: Admiral Rickover, center, and  Senator Clinton P. Anderson, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Below: Admiral Rickover


On the morning of January 17, 1955, at 11 am EST, Nautilus‘ first Commanding Officer, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, ordered all lines cast off and signaled the memorable and historic message, “Underway On Nuclear Power.” Over the next several years, Nautilus shattered all submerged speed and distance records.


Commander Eugene Wilkinson and Nautilus

On July 23, 1958, Nautilus departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii under top secret orders to conduct “Operation Sunshine”, the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship. At 11:15 pm on 3 August 1958, Nautilus‘ second Commanding Officer, Commander William R. Anderson, announced to his crew, “For the world, our country, and the Navy – the North Pole.” With 116 men aboard, Nautilus had accomplished the “impossible,” reaching the geographic North Pole – 90 degrees North.

In May 1959, Nautilus entered Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine for her first complete overhaul – the first of any nuclear powered ship – and the replacement of her second fuel core. Upon completion of her overhaul in August 1960, Nautilus departed for a period of refresher training, then deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to become the first nuclear powered submarine assigned to the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Over the next six years, Nautilus participated in several fleet exercises while steaming over 200,000 miles. In the spring of 1966, she again entered the record books when she logged her 300,000th mile underway. During the following 12 years, Nautilus was involved in a variety of developmental testing programs while continuing to serve alongside many of the more modern nuclear powered submarines she had preceded.

In the spring of 1979, Nautilus set out from Groton, Connecticut on her final voyage. She reached Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California on 26 May 1979 – her last day underway. She was decommissioned on 3 March 1980 after a career spanning 25 years and over half a million miles steamed.

In recognition of her pioneering role in the practical use of nuclear power, Nautilus was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior on 20 May 1982. Following an extensive historic ship conversion at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Nautilus was towed to Groton, Connecticut arriving on 6 July 1985.

On 11 April 1986, eighty-six years to the day after the birth of the Submarine Force, Historic Ship Nautilus, joined by the Submarine Force Museum, opened to the public as the first and finest exhibit of its kind in the world, providing an exciting, visible link between yesterday’s Submarine Force and the Submarine Force of tomorrow.


One Comment

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  1. Having served on board submarines for many years. I find this to be a very accurate report of this submarine. I have also toured the museum at Groton when I was stationed there. If you have the chance I recommend you go. thanks for this article. M. parker former MT U.S.S.Navy.


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