Come explore the USS Nautilus and the Submarine Force Library and Museum

Check out the first nuclear submarine.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Submarine Force Library and Museum

The Submarine Force Library and Museum is located in Groton, Connecticut, adjacent to Naval Submarine Base New London. It's also home to the first nuclear-powered submarine: the USS Nautilus.

The rings seen here show the difference in size between the current Ohio-class and the Navy's first modern sub, the (now tiny) USS Holland.

For more about my tour, the museum, and the submarine, check out A museum 20,000 leagues in the making: Exploring the USS Nautilus at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.

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Sail away

There are things to see before you even enter the museum. This is the sail from the USS George Washington, the first nuclear-powered ballistic missile sub. There's only one of those in the world you can tour, and I did.

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A nuclear sail

This is the sail and other pieces of the research sub NR-1.

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A mini

This is a full-size submarine, albeit a tiny one. It's the US Navy-built X-1, the first of its size. It was mostly used to test the defensive capabilities of harbors.

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A Japanese mini

This is one of the subs that likely inspired the Navy to build the X-1. It's a WWII-era Japanese Type A Ko-hyoteki, which would be carried close to its target by a mothership -- often another submarine -- and launched.

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A revolutionary sub

Here's a replica of the Turtle, the first combat submarine. It attempted to attach charges to British ships in New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War. It was unsuccessful, but the idea caught on.

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Rescue chamber

This is a McCann Rescue Chamber. Divers would submerge with the chamber and attach it to the hull of a sunk or stranded submarine. The only known use of this type of device is the 1939 rescue of 33 sailors from the USS Squalus.

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The Nautilus

Behold: the USS Nautilus (behind the thick pier).

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Go nuclear

Prior to the Nautilus, conventionally powered submarines would have to resurface regularly to recharge their batteries. But when powered by a nuclear reactor, a sub could (theoretically) stay down as long as the crew had food. The Nautilus was rated to a depth of 700 feet, more than twice that of earlier craft.

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With 13,400 horsepower she was fast, maxing out at around 26 mph underwater. For comparison, the USS Cobia (which I've toured) was built only 12 years earlier and could manage only around 10 mph.

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Polar explorer

The Nautilus was the first submarine to pass under the ice at the North Pole, heading north from Alaska and surfacing near Greenland in 1958.

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The Thames

Just up the Thames River (not the River Thames) is the main sub base on the East Coast, Naval Submarine Base New London.

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This is one of the most elaborate entrances to any sub I've ever toured.

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Down below

Like most submarine museums, a large hole has been cut in the hull add stairs and make embarking easier.

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Like living in a museum

Unique among the many submarines I've toured, everything is behind thick plexiglass -- which feels excessive.

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Port side racks

This was the torpedo room. The Nautilus had six forward-facing torpedo tubes.

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This gentleman is keeping watch over the wardroom where the officers ate.

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Mr. Verne

The Nautilus shared a name with the fictional sub from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. In 1957, the French navy's chief of staff gave a 1892 copy of the book to the (real) Nautilus's commander after it sailed under the polar ice cap and the North Pole.

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Captain's cabin

The commanding officer got a lovely stateroom.

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Hello, XO

The executive officer's cabin isn't quite as lavish as the captain's quarters.

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Room for officers

Here's one of the Nautilus's staterooms, with room for three of the ship's 13 officers.

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And more officers

Two officers shared this cabin.

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Down the hatch

Heading out of officer country, we get into the heart of the ship.

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Periscope up

The attack center and periscope room were once the sub's nerve centers.

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Operation Sunshine

On Aug. 3, 1958, the Nautilus became the first ship to reach the North Pole in an expedition called Operation Sunshine.

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Navigation gear included LORAN-A and -C receivers, a radio direction finder, and a state-of-the-art inertial navigation system.

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Sonar room

In one of the Nautilus's biggest differences from her descendants, she was loud. Apparently, the sonar was useless at medium speeds.

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ESM bay

This sailor is in charge of the cramped Electronic Surveillance Bay, which searched for and identified surface ships based on the type and usage of their radar.

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Stairs on a sub

These are likely the first real stairs installed on any submarine. Prior to this, subs used ladders exclusively. Behind me is a locked hatch, which leads to the (off limits) room that housed the former nuclear reactor. In the Redoutable submarine's reactor room, which I've also toured, a projector played a video of how they cut the ship apart to remove its reactor. 

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Control room

On the deck below the attack center and periscope room is the control room, where sailors drove the sub.

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Three drivers

The sailor closest controlled the bow planes. The sailor next to him moved the stern planes and the sailor farthest from the camera the rudder.

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Under pressure

Here are the controls for the boat's ballast tanks.

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Despite having a nuclear reactor that could theoretically generate power for years, the boat still had batteries in case of emergency.

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Crew mess

The crew mess is surprisingly spacious for a 1950s submarine.

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Meals were served every six hours.

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Still cramped

As roomy as it was compared to previous submarines, the crew still didn't have a lot of space.

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The chief

Senior enlisted personnel, aka chief petty officers, had bunks, toilet, shower and a lounge area.

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More bunks

The berths here and on my right are aft of the forward torpedo room. The area where I'm standing, which I believe was added during the conversion, would have contained crew berths.

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In addition to 13 officers, the Nautilus had 92 enlisted sailors.

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Well, not quite. But crews could watch a film. 

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Torpedo tubes

Here's a last look past the stairs at some of the torpedo tubes. 

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While not huge, the Submarine Force Library and Museum certainly has some well-preserved history. 

For more about the museum, the sub, and our tour, check out A museum 20,000 leagues in the making: Exploring the USS Nautilus at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.

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