Home North pole ice A museum 20,000 leagues in the making: Exploring the USS Nautilus

A museum 20,000 leagues in the making: Exploring the USS Nautilus

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Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

Since the turn of the 20th century, submarines have been an essential part of every navy. Their ability to stealthily attack supply ships, troop transports, and warships, and to seek out enemy submarines that might do the same, has long been crucial in wartime.

Designed to hide under the waves, submarines are the most vulnerable on the ocean surface. And until 70 years ago, they had to come out of hiding occasionally to recharge their limited batteries.

But what if a submarine didn’t have to surface? What if he could travel indefinitely, underwater, at high speed? For that, you would need an energy source that is not dependent on fossil fuels. In the early 1950s, scientists in the US Navy believed nuclear power was the answer. The first of these submarines was the USS Nautilus, launched in 1954.

For 26 years, the Nautilus paved the way for dozens of nuclear submarines. She broke speed and endurance records and became the first boat to reach the North Pole (under ice). She is now a museum ship in Groton, Connecticut. I went there to see what she looks like today.

Operation Sun

Before the Nautilus, submarines could only stay submerged for a few days, less if they wanted to move quickly. Batteries are batteries, after all, and the way to recharge them was by using large diesel engines while running on or near the surface. Every technology to keep humans alive underwater requires energy, from watermakers to produce potable water, to heating and / or air conditioning, and often electrolysis to create oxygen. Add to that the actual operation of the boat, from the lights and electronics to the energy-hungry electric motors that move it through the water. All of these things drain batteries even faster.

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Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

If you add more batteries to increase a submarine’s stamina, you either remove crew quarters or mission-critical equipment, or you just make the ship bigger. But then a slimy then forms because a larger submarine requires even more batteries to move through the water. A submarine can also get too long, which will make it, at the very least, problematic to maneuver.

A nuclear reactor solves many of these problems by providing almost unlimited power. The submarine can stay submerged as long as the crew has food, and they will run out before the reactor runs out of fuel. What was an operating limit of a few days could now be weeks or more and the submarines could be both aster and bigger. This is how you end up getting Leviathans like the Russian Typhoon class (aka Red October) and the American Ohio class. Both as long as two football fields.

But it all started with the Nautilus. Larger, faster, and able to dive deeper than the conventionally powered submarines of its day, it set many records and became a test bed for nuclear submarine propulsion. All subsequent American sub-designs would be influenced by the Nautilus.

His most famous record was that 1958 polar mission, Operation Sunshine. Traveling north from Alaska, the Nautilus sailed under the Arctic sea ice and became the first ship to reach the North Pole.

20,000 leagues

The Nautilus sailed the 20,000 leagues (or 60,000 nautical miles) of its fictitious namesake barely two years after its launch, and has continued to accumulate hundreds of thousands more during its quarter-century of service. Now decommissioned and bolted to its dock, the Nautilus is one of the only nuclear submarines in the world available for touring.

As you will see in the gallery, they certainly don’t want you to touch anything. Everything is behind thick plexiglass, but you can still see everything in the front of the reactor room including the control room, attack center, crew mess, etc.

The Nautilus is the star of the Submarine Force Museum, of course, but there are several other interesting exhibits like a replica of the first combat submarine and several mini-submarines. If you can’t visit Groton, check out the gallery above to take a look inside this historic boat.


In addition to covering television and other display technology, Geoff organizes photo tours of museums and cool places around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, cemeteries. planes, etc.

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, as well as a sequel.



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