The U.S. Navy: Search the Oceans

By Norman Polmar, Author, The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet

In explaining the craft's importance, the Admiral told a congressional committee, "You will be looking at a development that I believe will be as significant for the United States as was the Nautilus [SSN-571]." 2

The veil of secrecy surrounding the NR-1 was lifted partially when, on 18 April 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced the development of the craft. The White House release, citing the severe endurance and space limitations of existing research submersibles, stated:

The development of a nuclear propulsion plant for a deep submergence research vehicle will give greater freedom of movement and much greater endurance of propulsion and auxiliary power. This capability will contribute greatly to accelerate man's exploration and exploitation of the vast resources of the ocean. 3

Beyond her nuclear plant, which gave her unlimited underwater endurance, the NR-1 's most remarkable feature would be her operating depth of 3,000 feet—far greater than the U.S. Navy's combat submarines. This was not as great as the Navy's other manned research submersibles, but their underwater endurance was only a few hours.

The Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, designed the reactor, and the submersible was designed and built by the Electric Boat yard in Groton, Connecticut. The NR-1 was launched on 25 January 1969, underwent initial sea trials in August, and was placed in service on 27 October 1969. Secrecy was the order of the day. The Deep Submergence Systems Project, the Navy's management office for the NR-1 , was not allowed to publicize the craft except to reiterate what had been said in President Johnson's statement (which had been prepared by Rickover's office); even the early at-sea photos had the craft's fixed mast and television camera blanked out. (The camera was provided in place of conventional periscopes.)

The cost of the NR-1 at launch was estimated at $99.2 million. The Navy has never revealed "final" cost figures for the craft; however, cost seemed irrelevant in view of the unprecedented capabilities of the NR-1 to carry out research and ocean-engineering work.

The craft, resembling a conventional submarine, is fitted with two large wheels that permit it to roll and rest on the ocean floor. The retractable wheels have normal truck tires, with inner tubes filled with alcohol. In addition to her twin screws, which provide a submerged speed of 3.5 knots, the NR-1 has paired ducted thrusters forward and aft to provide a high degree of maneuverability. Extensive external lights, viewing ports, close-range sonars, a remote-controlled mechanical arm, and a recovery cage provide considerable capabilities.

The NR-1 's principal operational limitation is her deployment mobility. Because of her slow speeds, she must be towed to her operating area, either by a surface ship or (underwater) by a nuclear submarine. Her surface towing speed is up to 10 knots; submerged, it is 11 knots.

The major NR-1 activities of the Cold War era still are classified. Undoubtedly, she was employed to help maintain the Navy's sound surveillance system (SOSUS) and other seafloor installations; she probably also was used to help recover objects that fell to the ocean floor—Soviet as well as American.

Some of her exploits were publicized. For example, in 1976, the NR-1 had a key role in recovering an F-14 Tomcat fighter—armed with the then-new Phoenix missile—that had rolled off the deck of the carrier John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) and had come to rest at a depth of 1,960 feet. In 1986, she participated in the search for wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger off Cape Kennedy, Florida.

A few NR-1 exploits were acknowledged only reluctantly. In 1970, for example, the craft helped install the NATO-sponsored, eight-nation Azores Fixed Acoustic Range (AFAR). Obviously, a large number of civilians as well as military personnel ashore and afloat were cognizant of the NR-1 's participation in the project. When she entered Ponta Delgada in the Azores, many civilians in the port saw and probably photographed her. Still, Rickover objected strongly to the craft being mentioned in press releases or public documents related to AFAR.

With the end of the Cold War, the role of the NR-1 has changed. The Navy, with fewer classified deep-ocean missions, has made the craft available for civilian scientific and exploration work. In the spring of 1996, she operated off Key Largo, Florida, to support the Jason Project VII, an educational program for youth; in the summer and early fall of 1996, she deployed to Norway to support a government request to survey fjords, harbors, shipwrecks, and other undersea obstructions.

From June to late August 1997, the NR-1 operated in the eastern Mediterranean, where, at the behest of the Israeli Navy, she conducted a search for the wreckage of the submarine Dakar , lost in January 1968 while en route from Britain to Israel. This Mediterranean deployment also included exploring the wreck of the Britannic , sister ship of the Titanic , and searching for Roman wrecks. The latter effort included 19 dives for a total of 403 hours submerged, with 294 hours actually engaged in search, excavating, and recovery operations. Employing a conventional submersible for this work would have required thousands of hours because of the extra time required to return to the surface to recharge its battery.

Today, the Navy offers the NR-1 to technical institutions, universities, and the National Science Foundation for research assignments. It has produced an 11-minute videotape describing the NR-1 , her history, characteristics, and accomplishments, and developed a number of public relations booklets and pamphlets as handouts to the academic and scientific communities.

With the continuing need for military activities on the ocean floor, as well as the growing scientific use of the NR-1 , her future seems assured. The craft was first refueled during an extensive yard period from November 1990 to November 1993; she is scheduled to be overhauled in 2003 and refueled in 2012, based on a 20-year service life of her reactor core.

There are no plans for a follow-on to the NR-1 . The craft's predicted availability for many more years coupled with the high cost of a follow-on nuclear-powered research submersible make it highly unlikely that there will be a successor in the foreseeable future. In 1976, Admiral Rickover had proposed a so-called NR-2. The craft subsequently was redesignated as a Hull Test Vehicle to emphasize the use of HY-130 steel in its construction (the NR-1 was fabricated of HY-80 steel).4 But, in the event, neither the Navy nor Congress would support it.

The U.S. development of deep-diving nuclear submarines halted with the NR-1 , but the Russians have evolved a much larger deep-ocean submarine program. The Sudomekh-Admiralty shipyard in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) has produced a series of such craft with operating depths far exceeding those of Russian combat submarines.

A fourth Paltus-class submarine is believed to be under construction. The continued funding of this program despite the country's severe economic problems and the drastic cutbacks in Russian Navy construction and operations indicates the importance placed on deep-ocean operations by the Russians. (Russia also has several deep-diving, battery-powered submersibles.)

The NR-1 —well into her third decade of service—provides the most capable deep-ocean research and ocean-engineering capabilities in the West. She thus will continue to be in the forefront of underwater activities, both military and civilian.

1 For a discussion of the trials and tribulations of the NR-1 funding, see Capt. W. M. Nicholson, USN (Ret.), "Truth Is in the Eye of the Beholder," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1995, pp. 10-II.

2 Adm. H. G. Rickover, USN (Ret.), in Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program-196768, Hearings before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress, 1968), p. 30.

3 Untitled White House press release (Austin, Texas), 18 April 1965.

4 HY indicates high yield, with the number indicating the thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch at which the metal begins to yield. 


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