Cold War: USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

US Naval History and Heritage Command

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was the world's first nuclear-powered submarine and entered service in 1954. Named for the fictional submarine in Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as well as several previous US Navy vessels, Nautilus broke new ground in submarine design and propulsion. Capable of previously unheard of submerged speeds and duration, it quickly shattered several performance records. Due to its enhanced capabilities over its diesel-powered predecessors, Nautilus famously traveled to several locales, such as the North Pole, that had not been previously accessible by ship. Additionally, during a 24-year career, it served as a test platform for future submarine designs and technologies. 


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. This type of propulsion was highly desirable as a nuclear reactor makes no emissions and does not require air. Design and construction of the new vessel were personally overseen by the "Father of the Nuclear Navy," Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. The new ship featured a variety of improvements that had been incorporated into earlier classes of American submarines through the Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program. Including six torpedo tubes, Rickover's new design was to be powered by the SW2 reactor which had been developed for submarine use by Westinghouse.


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. The sixth US Navy vessel to carry the name Nautilus, the vessel's predecessors included a schooner captained by Oliver Hazard Perry during the Derna Campaign and a World War II submarine. The vessel's name also referenced Captain Nemo's famed submarine from Jules Verne's classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571): Overview

  • 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

Early Career

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 1,300-mile 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 as it could not combat a submarine capable of rapid speeds and depth changes as well as one that could remain submerged for extended periods. After a cruise under the polar ice, the submarine participated in NATO exercises and visited various European ports.

To the North Pole

In April 1958, Nautilus sailed for the West Coast to prepare for a voyage to the North Pole. Skippered by Commander William R. Anderson, the submarine's mission was sanctioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who wished to build credibility for the submarine-launched ballistic missile systems that were then under development. Departing Seattle on June 9, Nautilus was forced to abort the trip ten days later when deep draft ice was found in the shallow waters of the Bering Strait.

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. Navigation in the extreme latitudes was facilitated by the use of the North American Aviation N6A-1 Inertial Navigation System. Continuing on, Nautilus completed its transit of the Arctic 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 peacetime. After returning home for an overhaul, the submarine joined the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean in 1960.

Later Career

Having pioneered the use of nuclear power at sea, Nautilus was joined by the US Navy's first nuclear surface ships USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and USS Long Beach (CGN-9) in 1961. 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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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: USS Nautilus (SSN-571)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Cold War: USS Nautilus (SSN-571). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: USS Nautilus (SSN-571)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).