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NR-1 - The US Navy's First Nuclear Powered,
Deep Submergence Submarine

Chapter 2 - The Idea

At the very time that I was learning the operations of a modern nuclear submarine, science and technology were opening new vistas in underwater exploration, advances that went virtually unnoticed because they occurred alongside the publicity-laden race between the United States and the Soviet Union to send a man to the moon.  With national prestige on the line, government money poured into the American space program, although many scientists felt that learning about Earth’s “inner space” was more relevant than outer space.

Only governments could build huge rockets and warships in those years, but that was not true about exploring the oceans.  Private companies might not be able to reach into space, but commercial interests had gone to sea for centuries.  Soon after businesses decided there were profits to be made in the undersea world from new minerals and food sources and the discovery of sunken treasure, some companies started constructing and launching private submersibles.

The route to the bottom of the sea was paved by a unique partnership between the military and scientific communities.  By assisting scientists and oceanographers, the navies of the world advanced their own strategic interests by learning more about the mysterious environment beneath the waves.  As the years passed and technology advanced, such knowledge became critical.

The first significant underwater probe had taken place in 1934, when an American scientist, William Beebe, and an engineer, Otis Barton, rode to a depth of about a half mile in a round steel ball secured to a surface ship by heavy lines.  Barton called it a “bathysphere,” which can be loosely defined as a deep ball, and the two-windowed submersible was one of the remarkable inventions of the early twentieth century, for it took mankind into an unknown world.

French diver Jacques Cousteau and his partner Emil Gagnan added some mobility to sea exploration in 1943 with the invention of the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.  Divers who had been confined to working in life-sustaining heavy suits and steel helmets now could swim about easily by wearing scuba gear.

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The Trieste, a Swiss-designed, Italian-built deep-diving research bathyscaphe ("deep boat")

World War II brought a quantum leap in the machines that allowed men to efficiently breathe, travel, and exist deep beneath the surface, but it was peacetime that brought about an ultimate underwater triumph.  On January 23, 1960, American Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard of Switzerland boarded the U.S. Navy’s only bathysphere, the Trieste, and sank into the Challenger Deep of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean.  They defied logic, pitch darkness and thousands of pounds of pressure in order to plant an American flag a record 35,800 feet below the surface, in the deepest spot on earth.

The Trieste was the only U.S. “deep submersible” at the time, but with the explosion of commercial interest in what might be found on the ocean floor, some eighty deep submergence vehicles were built and deployed during the next decade. The navy built or sponsored only fifteen of them.  The rest were the products of academic institutions and major corporations, such as Westinghouse, General Electric, Lockheed, Reynolds Aluminum, and Perry Ocean Systems.  They branched away from the early diving ball concept and developed vehicles with mobility - submersibles and compact submarines that could not only go underwater, but also do independent work while submerged.

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The ALVIN Submersible

The most famous was the Alvin, a maneuverable submersible built around a hull sphere of pressure-resisting HY-100 steel and paid for by the navy, but operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The Alvin, named for a popular chipmunk cartoon character of the day and Allyn Vine, a pioneering Woods Hole scientist, set the standard for oceanographic research.

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The Reynolds Metals Aluminaut
(Courtesy of George Tyler, Science Museum of Virginia)

The private sector responded with a deep-sea research sub owned by Reynolds Metals, called the Aluminaut, which set a world’s depth record for a deep submersible of 6,250 feet on its first time out.

Dive by dive, new commercial vessels, scientific boats of all shapes and submarines of the world’s seafaring nations pushed deeper into the dangerous undersea world.

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The exact cause of the Thresher disaster was never determined. However, enough evidence was gathered to show there was a massive failure somewhere in the labyrinth of seawater piping in the engine room as the ship made a deep dive. The salty spray short-circuited the electrical system and shut down the nuclear reactor. Without propulsion and unable to restart the reactor, the ship sank deeper as her men tried to combat the flooding in the dim light from emergency battle lanterns.

The flood of high-pressure water soon overcame her buoyancy and dragged the Thresher deeper and deeper, until she sank past her crush depth in the unforgiving ocean.

The ship might have survived if the heat energy stored in the reactor and its coolant system had been used to drive the ship to the surface. However, strict reactor operating procedures of the time forbade such an action because it might have damaged some of the large heat exchangers in the reactor compartment. The rules stressed protecting the power plant regardless of what happened to the ship.

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The USS Thresher

The death of the Thresher in waters a mile and a half deep caused profound changes within the U.S. Navy, particularly concerning the safety of submariners. During World War II, the sinking of ships with all hands aboard was acceptable, but much had changed since then. In peacetime, the loss of so many lives could not be ignored. The navy’s investigation underscored the need for a way to rescue men trapped below the surface aboard incapacitated submarines. Even though no rescue would have been possible in the case of the Thresher, we submariners liked knowing that if disaster struck, our navy mates would at least be able to attempt to save us.

Like a whirling top throwing off sparks, the investigation spun into unexpected directions, including the creation of the Deep Submergence Systems Project (DSSP), the centerpiece of which was the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV), a piloted minisubmarine designed to save the lives of sailors trapped in crippled subs. After the Thresher, neither the public nor Congress would object to spending money for that purpose.

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Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle Mystic (DSRV-1)

The navy removed both the project and the proposed DSRV from the normal path of ship development and placed them in the Navy Special Projects Office. Special Projects, already overworked with developing new generations of missiles and submarines, declared the DSSP to be an independent subsystem and dropped it on the desk of its chief scientist - a brash and brilliant young man named John Piña Craven. There it faded from public view, and secrecy enveloped the entire deep submergence effort. The most remarkable thing about the DSSP was that it had a budget that was large and loose.

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John Piña Craven

There was plenty of room beneath that funding umbrella for things other than building submarine rescue vehicles. As American submarines became tools of espionage, millions of DSSP dollars would be siphoned away and spent on things the navy would not even admit existed.

“The Deep Submergence Systems Project was the embryo of the intelligence navy,” Craven would write in The Silent War. “DSRV was mother to quite a brood … a classic example of the secret intelligence paradigm; the cover is real and it produces covert progeny.”

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Reports differ on when Rickover first began thinking about building a small nuclear-powered submarine that could drive along the bottom of the ocean, but he certainly was influenced by the developing technology that had created the deep-diving submersibles, as well as the new role evolving for submarines in covert operations.

As he saw it, tethered submersibles could go deep with a couple of observers, but had limited range because of the lines and electrical power cables that secured them to support ships on the surface. Unmanned underwater robots were limited because they did not carry a crew and were confined to very specific roles. As an example, the navy’s Cable-Controlled Undersea Recovery Vehicle (CURV) was designed to recover test weapons and torpedoes off the California coast in depths down to two thousand feet. And the piloted miniature submarines such as the Alvin and the Aluminaut could roam freely, but not for long because of weak, battery-powered engines. Nothing surmounted all of those problems.

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CURV prepares to alert the world to the usefulness of ROVs. Photo courtesy Sandia National Laboratories.

In November of 1964, Rickover discussed the puzzle during an airplane flight with Mark Forssell, an expert on submersibles and advanced developments. Nuclear power, Rickover believed, could create a new breed of underwater vessels with unlimited possibilities. They would not depend upon batteries, would be manned by expert naval personnel, and would operate entirely on their own. Such a boat could conquer the ocean floor, and the strategic implications were huge. By the time the flight from Schenectady, New York, landed in Washington, Forssell had orders to draw up parameters for a small sub that could go deeper than any manned submarine in existence and be powered by a compact nuclear reactor that would let it stay underwater indefinitely.

Forssell soon reported back that it was theoretically possible to construct a reactor small enough to fit into a tiny submarine. That was enough for Rickover. Almost with a snap of his fingers, he decided to create such a ship.

No one else in the navy had the power, the position, the foresight, the means, and the determination to do something so outrageous, for he went around every check and balance in the system. He saw a need and chose to fill it, doing something that most bureaucrats would never do - making a decision completely on his own.

Thus began one of the most incredible periods of rapid development in the U.S. Navy’s long history of building ships. Rickover’s creation, the NR-1, would never again move as fast as it did in the days when it lived only in his mind. With only sketchy reports in hand, the admiral launched a tour de force of political maneuvering to breathe life into the project while at the same time keeping it away from the formal channels of budgeting, review, and justification.

He won the backing of some of the navy’s top technical people and then briefed the chief of naval operations, Admiral David L. McDonald, on January 28, 1965. After that, he assembled more official backers in an incredibly short time. One of his first converts was Dennis Wilkinson, the former commander of the Nautilus, who had become a rear admiral and was head of the navy’s submarine branch. Wilkinson agreed with his old mentor on the need for a deep-diving submarine that would test a new generation of nuclear reactors and take subs to depths none had reached before, just as his Nautilus had once opened new worlds of navigation under the Arctic ice.

Next, Rickover won the blessing of Robert Morse, the assistant secretary of the navy for research and development, the man who held the purse strings. Then he swept Rear Admiral Levering Smith, head of the Polaris missile project, onto his team. In short order, he was able to give Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze just enough information to get their approval at a time the two men were becoming overwhelmed by Vietnam.

Nitze would recall discussing costs with Rickover, who brushed the issue aside, claiming that the total project could be done for only $20 million - about one-tenth the cost of a warship. The skeptical Nitze decided to provide some leeway and pledged to recommend a budget of $25 million. Not an inch of the ship had yet been built and already the cost was escalating, something that disturbed Rickover not at all. He was confident that his political allies would support the project and the money would flow. McNamara approved Nitze’s suggested figure.

Then Rickover blatantly reached into the DSSP project and stole John P. Craven, the navy’s chief scientist, to be one of the managers of his new program. The fertile imagination of the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Craven was always coming up with new ideas. He even at one time proposed a deep diving submersible made of glass, and at another, considering a small submarine with nuclear power that could go very deep.

Although based in firm science, such schemes were not much more than flights of fancy -the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that constantly flowed from Craven. When Admiral Wilkinson told him with that one of those ideas to create a futuristic vessel might actually be possible, the scientist was intrigued. Rickover pulled together a secret meeting with Craven, Admiral Smith, and Assistant Secretary Morse to work out the details. Again, the money issue arose, for the hasty project was being born outside of budgetary planning.

Rickover demanded to know how much money was available, and Craven replied that he could come up with $10 million from the secret budget for special projects. Morse thought he could shift over another $22 million in ship construction money already appropriated by Congress for other projects. “Good,” Rickover replied. “It will cost $32 million.” The price was growing almost by the day.

In fact, the total had reached a level at which Congress was going to demand some answers. Rickover was unfazed, because he had yet to play his final card. On April 18, President Lyndon Johnson interrupted a holiday at his ranch in Texas to issue a news release in which he announced the navy and the Atomic Energy Commission were developing “a nuclear-powered deep-submergence research and ocean-engineering vehicle.” The president noted that Admiral Rickover would be responsible for the propulsion plant. BuShips would handle design and construction, and the Special Projects Office would have overall responsibility, a point that would keep the ship behind the veil of national security.

The protest from Congress over not being notified in advance dissipated when they were briefed. Rickover, a master of political gambits, had engineered a presidential decree. Anyone wanting to block development of his new boat now faced the unpleasant prospect of dealing not only with the daunting Rickover, but also with the White House, where President Johnson was also known for getting his way.

That the new vessel was Admiral Rickover’s baby was never in doubt, for he personally gave the ship its name. It would be called the NR-1 - NR after his Naval Reactors division, and the number 1 because he planned to eventually have an entire fleet of such revolutionary boats.

The secrecy and deception that would wrap the NR-1 for decades began at the very start. Not only was it under the aegis of Special Projects, but it was also never designated as a warship. Even the White House announcement blandly stated the new vessel would “contribute greatly to accelerate man’s exploration and exploitation of the vast resources of the ocean … enable scientists to examine firsthand an extensive part of the earth’s surface for new sources of raw materials … and extend accumulation of commercially useful information on the habits of diverse species of marine life.” That described a handy little ship with harmless missions. Military use was not mentioned.

In future lists of naval strength, the NR-1 would remain an asterisk among the attack and missile-carrying submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers in the U.S. Navy, and many of its missions would remain strictly classified. It was referred to only as an unarmed research vessel powered by atomic energy, presumably an extension of the navy’s interest in oceanography. But it would never appear in the annual Oceanographic Ship Operating Schedules published by the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy.

When word spread through the Pentagon about what Rickover was up to, the admirals gave it little notice or importance. Their focus was on Vietnam and meeting Cold War goals that required giant aircraft carriers, battle groups, aerial armadas, and submarines that packed strategic missiles.

Most of them felt the NR-1 was unneeded and a waste of money, but they had no time for a dustup over one of Rickover’s crazy schemes. None of the dissenters dared tell Rickover to his face, fearing that to do so might set off a reprisal from President Johnson. Rickover, confident that time would prove him right, did not try to convince them of the value of the NR-1.

Within a few months, the proof he needed literally fell from the sky.

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