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The USS Nautilus: Nuclear Science Week

It's Nuclear Science Week--a national and international, broadly observed week-long celebration to focus local, regional, national and international interest on all aspects of nuclear science! NSW takes place each year on the third week of October, and each day of NSW provides for learning about the contributions, innovations and opportunities that can be found by exploring nuclear science.

So, in observance of NSW this week (October 17-21), I'd like to share a few interesting posts relating to nuclear science.

The USS Nautilus

Submarines have been around for a long time, and they played a part in both World Wars I and II. But those subs could only stay submerged for hours at the time, due to the need to resurface, run the engines, and recharge the battery which was needed for propulsion. The limited amount of air could also be a problem, as was the lack of any system to purify it for the crew members.

However, the onset of the nuclear age changed everything! Nuclear energy was first

released in a nuclear reactor in 1942, and scientists worked to take the concept underwater. As subs were equipped with small nuclear reactors to produce energy, the need to come to the surface to recharge was eliminated. The subs could stay underwater for weeks or months. It also meant there was enough electrical power to run systems to keep both air and water fresh and purified for the men aboard.

How does it work?

The controlled nuclear reaction produces heat, which is used to turn water into steam. The steam drives a turbine that spins a shaft with the propeller on the end. As the steam cools, it condenses back into water, and the cycle begins again. No oxygen is needed for this system to work. Plus, it means the sub can travel great distances at high speed, and not come up for long periods of time due to the unlimited source of power.

The U.S. Navy Museum has a great interactive diagram for understanding how a nuclear reactor works here. And if you are REALLY interested in learning more about fission and how the whole nuclear propulsion system works, you can read a more detailed PDF about it here.

USS Nautilus

A plan to build the first nuclear sub was authorized by the United States in 1951, and the USS Nautilus (was launched in 1954. It was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower in January and fully commissioned by the U.S. Navy in September of that same year..

(Officers aboard the USS Nautilus SSN-571 submarine for her commissioning ceremony.)

Since the sub was no longer subjected to the need to resurface, recharge, and seek fresh air each day, it was no more hindered by ice caps near the North Pole either. The sub could simply pass under the polar ice and snow. It could attempt to do what no other ship had ever accomplished before--cross the geographic North Pole! The mission was called 'Operation Sunshine.'

According to information from the Submarine Force Museum website:

"On July 23, 1958, NAUTILUS departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii under top secret orders to conduct "Operation Sunshine", the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship. At 11:15 pm on August 3, 1958, NAUTILUS' second Commanding Officer, Commander William R. Anderson, announced to his crew, "For the world, our country, and the Navy - the North Pole." With 116 men aboard, NAUTILUS had accomplished the "impossible", reaching the geographic North Pole - 90 degrees North."

In the years following, the USS Nautilus set many more records and participated in countless studies to promote and improve nuclear sub performance and development. She was decommissioned on March 3, 1980 after a career spanning 25 years and over half a million miles steamed. In 1986, the first nuclear sub was opened to the public as a permanent exhibition at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

You can learn more about the USS Nautilus and take a virtual tour of the sub here.

Learn more about the history of Nuclear Science Week!

During the week, educators, students, employers and the community participate in a national recognition of how nuclear science plays a vital role in the lives of Americans – and the world. Activities during the week are intended to build awareness of the contributions of the nuclear science industry and those who work in it every day.

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