At 11:15 p.m. EDT on 03 August 1958, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, passed underneath the geographic North Pole.
In completing a “successful passage from the Chukchi Sea, north of Bering Strait, to the Greenland Sea,” the Nautilus became the first vessel to cross the North Pole beneath the Arctic ice cap.
On 23 July 1958, Nautilus departed the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for her second attempt that year to pass under the Arctic Circle. Nautilus submerged in the Barrow Sea on 01 August and resurfaced near Greenland on 07 August. Commander William R. Anderson had also attempted an exploratory mission in 1957.
Anderson learned in 1957 that the environment of the Arctic is “harsh, almost alien.”
In 1879, Navy Lt. Commander George W. DeLong led an attempted voyage north that ended in tragedy after his ship was trapped in ice and many crew members, including DeLong, died… After World War II, the Soviet Union flew a plane there and landed on the ice, but in the whole of human history, no water vessel had ever made it there and back, and none had even dared claim the accomplishment.
On conventional submarines, crewmembers showered once a week if they were lucky and shared bunks — one crewmember would sleep as the other was on duty. On the Nautilus, crew members showered daily and each had his own bunk. There was a fairly sizable mess hall that doubled as a movie theater where popular films were projected.
As a nuclear-powered vessel, Nautilus could remain submerged longer than a diesel-electric submarine. Moreover, “diesel-electric boats could not travel freely under ice.” This made Nautilus the logical candidate for Operation Sunshine, the scientific research expedition to the North Pole.
After the Nautilus made her historic crossing beneath a North Pole ice cap, the crew members enjoyed a meal of steak, french fries, carrots, peas, fruit salad, bread, and cake.
Captain Hyman G. Rickover, a Russian-born engineer who joined the U.S. atomic program in 1946, had orchestrated “the successful development of a nuclear propulsion plant by a group of scientists and engineers.” Ahead of schedule.
The US Navy commissioned Nautilus on 30 September 1954.
The Nautilus hull designation was SSN 571 (Submersible Ship, Nuclear; submarine number 571 built by the US Navy). She was named for Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine, created by Jules Verne in his 1870 classic science-fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as well as previous US Navy vessels.
By 1961, the Navy operated about a dozen nuclear-powered submarines.
The Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980. Since 1985, she has been on exhibit at the USS Nautilus Memorial and Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
- By Airship to the North Pole: An Archaeology of Human Exploration
- Nautilus 90 North
- Submarines Under Ice: The U.S. Navy’s Polar Operations