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Facelift for a fabled submarine that has sailed into history

The USS Nautilus is ‘the foundation on which the entire nuclear Navy is built’

Guests watched as a tugboat moved the USS Nautilus to dock last October to start preservation work at Pier 2 at the Navy's submarine base in Groton, Conn.SEAN D. ELLIOT/Associated Press

GROTON, Conn. – The great ship has already sailed powerfully — and stealthily — onto the pages of the world’s history books.

The USS Nautilus was the first vehicle ever to be propelled by atomic power.

A seafaring legend, the 320-foot submarine made a pioneering voyage under the polar ice cap in 1957, and then shattered all submarine records of the 1950s for speed, distance traveled submerged, and length of time underwater.

Decommissioned in 1980, the legendary vessel now sits so tightly wrapped in tarps that it was hardly recognizable as a submarine the other day under leaden skies that threatened a late-winter snowstorm here along the Thames River.


But it is the same ship envisioned by then-Captain Hyman Rickover who, in 1950, asked the Electric Boat shipyard a question for the ages: Could it build a hull for a nuclear-powered submarine?

Four years later, Rickover had his answer when the Nautilus was christened, the beginning of a breathtaking deep-dive performance that spanned 25 years and more than a half-million miles.

Now, the fabled Nautilus — designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982 — is getting a $36 million facelift. If you climb aboard, you can almost hear the heartbeat of history beating within it.

Its hull will be blasted and painted.

The sub will get new topside decks.

Interior lighting will be replaced and electrical systems will be upgraded. All of it is expected to take six to eight months.

When the work is done, the Navy expects the old sub to have a 30-year clean bill of health, a place where kids and families — and old sailors — can hear and tell stories about oceangoing derring-do.

“I don’t think that her historical significance can be overstated,” Lieutenant Commander Derek A. Sutton, the officer in charge of the Nautilus and director of the Submarine Force Museum, told me when I visited the historic submarine this
past week.


“Here we have the first complete example of nuclear power. The first example of nuclear propulsion. First nuclear vessel. First nuclear-powered submarine.

“As soon as she hit the water, she was immediately setting submerged depth records. Submerged speed records. Submerged transit time records. She was the first vessel to reach the North Pole. Just an incredible asset.’’

In other words, the Nautilus is preparing for posterity, securing its rightful place alongside the Mayflower and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, worthy of membership in the elite world vessel club with Henry Ford’s Model T and NASA’s moonshot Eagle.

And that applause you’re hearing is coming from those who sailed aboard the submarine when it represented the cutting edge of maritime military might — the ship for which President Harry Truman laid the keel in 1952 and which launched two years later, with Mamie Eisenhower presiding.

“Rickover understood that safety was paramount,” said Dave Oliver, a retired two-star admiral who served as the engineer officer aboard the Nautilus from 1969 to 1972. “We’ve never had a nuclear accident in the Navy and he installed a system with zero accidents.

“People don’t appreciate yet how much the Nautilus changed the world.”

But here, where the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics has been designing and building subs since 1899, beginning with the USS Holland, the Navy’s first commissioned undersea warship, they have some idea.


During World War I, the Navy Yard on the Thames River was officially commissioned as a submarine base. Groton became known as the Submarine Capital of the World when Electric Boat delivered 74 diesel submarines to the Navy in World War II.

It still claims that title today.

And if you stand alongside the Nautilus on the shores of the Thames River as I did the other day, that oceangoing history is as real and as current as the great ship that now serves as a museum to American might and ingenuity.

“She is the foundation on which the entire nuclear Navy is built,’’ Sutton said. “The first and the finest. She is amazing.’’

“What surprises me,” Sutton added, “is how similar the stories told by old veterans are to the stories that we have now. To its core, submarining is submarining. It’s a very independent operation. We have the same types of missions, the same types of shenanigans that they talk about from her early history. They’re the same type of things that we get into now. It’s just a little more advanced today — and a lot more capable obviously.”

Its nuclear reactor allowed the Nautilus to remain submerged for as long as provisions for its 110 officers and crew members lasted.

In 1957, when the Nautilus required its first refueling of uranium, there was a party of sorts on board.

By then the sub had traveled 20,000 leagues — or some 60,000 miles, under the sea. A landmark that Jules Verne, the science fiction novelist who wrote about the mysterious Captain Nemo aboard the submarine Nautilus, would have surely applauded.


Soon, there will be more applause aboard the old boat.

And then it’ll be ready for another tour of maritime history.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.