World's first atomic submarine. Shed on the bow encloses staircase leading below....
World's first atomic submarine. Shed on the bow encloses staircase leading below....

Submarine Force Museum: USS Nautilus

Field review by the editors.

Groton, Connecticut

If you've ever felt cramped by spaces aboard an RV or a commercial airliner, you should visit the Submarine Force Museum and tour the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered sub. In an RV or plane you can at least look out a window; in the Nautilus, packed in with a crew of 105, you could stay submerged and sunless, running on atomic power and manufactured air, for months.

...to a torpedo room behind plexiglass walls. The Nautilus tour winds through half the ship.
...to a torpedo room behind plexiglass walls. The Nautilus tour winds through half the ship.

Steve Orfield, the environmental scientist who owns The Quietest Place on Earth, told us that, "No one who's normal is ever assigned to a submarine." He meant it as a complement; submariners have to be better than most of us at blocking out stress and remaining focused. "You just deal with it," said Submarine Force Museum director Lt Cmdr Bradley Boyd, himself an unflappable submariner. "Once you get in your routine you don't really notice that you're not going outside."

The museum, on the banks of the Thames River, takes visitors through the U.S. Navy's history of underwater warfare. Two large rings, suspended over the entrance, contrast the diameters of the oldest and newest subs in the fleet, and make you wonder if America's earliest submariners were also Oompa Loompas. Outdoor displays include the upper parts of historic subs such as the USS George Washington (the first to carry missiles) and the secretive NR-1 (which salvaged the wreckage from the Space Shuttle Challenger). A display of midget subs -- more tiny sailors -- includes the SS X-1 and the captured Japanese Type A, both designed to sneak into harbors and blow up enemy ships.

Diving Plainsman, Helmsman, and Bow Plainsman drive the submarine.
Diving Plainsman, Helmsman, and Bow Plainsman drive the submarine.

In the museum, Bushnell's Turtle attacked British ships in 1776.
In the museum, Bushnell's Turtle attacked British ships in 1776.

Inside the museum, visitors peer through periscopes, sit at the salvaged helm of a real nuclear submarine, and view underwater mines and ballistic missiles. There's a full-size version of Bushnell's Turtle, designed to sink British warships in the Revolutionary War (it was built in Connecticut), and a 50-foot-long model of a Gato-class World War II attack sub, displayed in dim light suggesting the murky depths. Cutouts in the hull show only a handful of sailors, but the real sub would have been more crowded.

The most memorable exhibit at the museum is the Nautilus, floating just offshore. Even though she is old enough in human years to be collecting Social Security, and although dozens of atom-powered subs have followed in her wake, the Nautilus is still the only U.S. nuclear sub open to the public. There are no glowing fuel rods on the tour; the reactor was removed decades ago, and the engineering rooms remain off-limits because the Navy, said Lt Cmdr Boyd, is still secretive about nuclear propulsion. Even the depth and speed gauges inside the Nautilus are covered, preventing anyone from seeing how fast or deep she was expected to travel.

The Nautilus never carried nuclear weapons, as far as public knowledge of her payload goes; her big advantage was her atomic-powered engine. According to museum curator Steve Finnigan, the previous generation of diesel-electric submarines needed air to operate and spent most of their time on the surface, making them useless for surveillance or sneak attacks during the Cold War. Nautilus had the technology to prowl the seas while remaining submerged indefinitely -- or at least until her crew's food supply ran out.

Midget sub X-1 used experimental air propulsion to sneak up on the enemy.
Midget sub X-1 used experimental air propulsion to sneak up on the enemy.

A self-guided tour of the Nautilus is not for the mobility-impaired or claustrophobic. Unlike any other submarine we've toured, all of its corridors and rooms are hemmed in with protective plexiglass walls, making a visit something like threading through a Maze of Mirrors. On a busy day you may find yourself sandwiched between people in front and people pressing from behind, unexpectedly conveying the tight quarters of submarine life. Your eyes may glaze over when studying the EM Log Sword Activator or DC Voltage Control Panel, but the sub has a peppy audio wand tour and a colorful crew of showroom dummies. Walking through a torpedo room is always a thrill, even if they aren't atomic torpedoes.

Fresh loaf in the Nautilus. Submarines were said to have the best food in the military.
Fresh loaf in the Nautilus. Submarines were said to have the best food in the military.

Quirky artifacts aboard the Nautilus include its stylish 1955 industrial-size coffee makers (coffee was available to the crew 24/7), a Damage Control display of cones and wedges that could be shoved into leaks in the hull, and two dummies modeling emergency oxygen masks, one of them tapped into the high-pressure air surrounding the hull, a first for any submarine.

"They had to build pressure reducers for those," said Lt Cmdr Boyd. "You don't want to breathe 3,000-4,000-pound air. You'd blow your lungs out."

Much of the history of the Nautilus is still classified, but that's typical of all U.S. Navy nuclear submarines, and doesn't lessen the novelty of the tour. And although its atomic heritage may have made some tourists nervous when the Nautilus opened to the public in 1986, Lt Cmdr Boyd said it's no longer much of a visitor concern.

"No one shows up and is worried that they're going to get three heads from touring the Nautilus."

Also see: New England Submarine on Dry Land

Submarine Force Museum: USS Nautilus

Address:
1 Crystal Lake Rd, Groton, CT
Directions:
I-95 exit 86. Drive north on CT-12 for 1.5 miles. Turn left at the stoplight onto Crystal Lake Rd. Drive a half-mile. Continue straight through the last traffic light to the museum.
Hours:
W-M 9-4. Gated after hours. Closed 12 days in Spring and Fall for maintenance. (Call to verify)
Phone:
860-694-3174
Admission:
Free
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
PEZ Visitor Center, Orange, CT - 48 mi.

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September 20, 2019

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