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Happy Birthday to the Cold War's Most Eerie Technology: The 'Atom Sub'

The ghosts that haunt Earth's last remaining hiding places.

There is no better symbol of the Cold War than the nuclear submarine: A shadow meant to vaporize whole civilizations. The haunt at the end of everything.

The fundamental strangeness of the submarine concept doesn't get nearly enough credit. It's one thing for a technology to allow underwater travel—like a mirror-image airplane—but since the USS Nautilus launched 6​1 years ago (today), submarines have been about something quite different: undersea existence. The modern military sub has more to do with the International Space Station than it does a 747 or, more likely, a B-58 strategic bomber.

Put differently, the Nautilus was the first submarine that didn't really have to ever come up. It was the first nuclear submarine, which might also be considered the first submarine in the proper sense of the term. Before the Nautilus, submarines were really just boats that went underwater sometimes: submersibles. With oxygen-hoarding (air-hoarding) diesel engines, pre-nuclear subs were hardly autonomous; they had to (noisily) come up for air and fuel.

A submarine is different. It makes its own power, and breathes its own air. A submarine is an undersea kingdom, an Atlantis or a Rapture writ tubular, that interacts with the surface when it so chooses and the rest of the time, well, it's probably sneaking an array of nuclear missiles into your backyard and generally doing the dirty work of Mutually Assured Destruction.

When we think of nuclear power we usually think of cooling towers, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Nuclear power, which is among the more chronically misunderstood science-things out there, looms in the popular imagination as another mega-technology. Yet it's pretty easy to make small.

After all, nuclear power started small—the first turbine ge​nerator, housed in a high-desert lab in nowhere-Idaho, featured a core about the size of a football, outputting enough juice to first power a string of light bulbs and, later, a whole building.

The Nautilus arrived only a few years later than that demonstration turbine, though its planning had begun long before. In July 1951, the US Congress approved its development; a year later and construction was underway, kicked-off in a keel-laying ceremony attended by Harry S Truman. In January 1954, the Nautilus was christened and launched into the Thames River.

Image: Albert K. Murray/US Naval History Command

The Nautilus was about an eighth the size of a modern Typhoon clas​s nuclear submarine, with a mere 4,000 or so tons of displacement. (Displacement is the amount of water that would otherwise occupy the space in which a naval vessel is in.) It also didn't carry quite the responsibility of a Typhoon; its armament was limited to six torpedo tubes, while a Typhoon is built to carry a load of up to 20 ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The sort of reactor that powered the Nautilus wasn't all that different from the sort used to generate power for everyday/civilian electrical grids, and it even became a prototype for contemporary civilian nuclear reactors. The trick was in maximizing space and, obviously, ensuring stability. It was based off of the land-based S1W rea​ctor, a design that used exceptionally highly-enriched uranium fuel and pressurized water as a coolant.

The pressurization was key, allowing for two separate loops of coolant water, one irradiated loop that could get reused again and again, and one other, lower-pressure loop that didn't interact with anything radioactive. Which is good, especially if you happen to be trapped underwater with the thing for many months on end.

Generally, the pressurized-water design is safer and more stable. For one, it outputs less power as core temperatures increase and, two, it's built to shutdown automatically should some bad shit happen. Its control rods are dangled above the reactor using electromagnets and, should current be lost for some (bad) reason, the rods activate just through gravity.

Image: ​World Nuclear Association

The Nautilus spent most of its life with a squadron based out of Connecticut, basically acting as an anti-submarine guard dog for the Atlantic Ocean while also testing out various new anti-sub technologies. Aside from just existing, the sub's real accomplishment was Operation Sunshine, in which it became the first ship of any sort to reach the North Pole.

This is where things become spooky in that special way only Cold War technology can provide. The Soviets had just recently launched the Sputnik rocket, which bore the first artificial satellite—how it's usually thought of now—but it was also a demonstration of something very, very dark. Sputnik was the name given to an R-7 rocket, which was the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. Sputnik was pr​oof that the Soviet Union could deliver nuclear weapons around the globe without leaving its backyard. In 1957, the US was at least a year behind.

The Nautilus' Operation Sunshine mission was the counter-flex to Sputnik. The US couldn't send a nuclear missile into space, but it could send it underwater, from anywhere to anywhere else, basically. Traversing the North Pole was the ultimate demonstration of that: the US didn't need to nuke the USSR from its backyard because it was already in the USSR's front-yard.

The mission might have offered any number of claustrophobic doomsdays to the Nautilus crew. The first attempt was rebuffed by deep undersea ice—under the Bering Strait, the gap between ice-bottom and seafloor was too narrow to accommodate—with the second, successful transit occurring about a month later. With compasses rendered all but useless underwater above the North Pole, the Nautilus depended on a modified cruise missile navigation system. It was still no guarantee that that sub wouldn't get locked in somewhere or just plain lost.

By the time of the crossing, the US had already placed an order for its first nuclear-powered ballist​ic missile subs, the George Washington class. They were ad hoc conversions of the Skipjack series of nuclear sub, which hit the water about a year after Operation Sunshine. The point was deterrence, as the point of the Cold War itself eventually became. Nice ICBMs, but check out our fleet of undersea nuclear ghosts, currently haunting your northern coastline, well within range of Moscow. Most all of this happened within just a couple years time.

The US nuclear ballistic missile subs were known as boomers, but mostly they behaved just as, indeed, ghosts. Their entire design eventually revolved around stealth: sonar-resistant rubber tiling, minimized and masked propulsion systems, and even machinery mounted on vibration-absorbing pads.

A nuclear-powered sub then, just at the technology's outset, could feasibly stay submerged for 10 years without refueling, with its crew surviving on oxygen harvested from the water and stored food. Submarines-as-ghosts is less a metaphor than reasonable descriptor: an entity that exists both within and without our world, silent patches of black intended to blow up entire cities.

The USS Skate surfaced in the Arctic. Image: ​US Navy

The newest British submarine class, the Astute s​eries, is the quietest submarine ever built. Every possible sound a submarine might create was modeled and minimized to the point of being all but nothing. Instead of noisy sonar, it comes with a large array of hydropho​nes, some positioned at various points on the vessel's hull, while others drag along behind.

"We created computer models of structures involved in the propulsion and pipework systems," Stuart Godden, the project's lead engineer, told ​Wired, "and then modelled how we thought noise would be transmitted through those structures and pipe systems to the hull, and then obviously we tried to damp those noise paths to make the boat as quiet as we possibly could."

Also modeled was the effect of a torpedo strike against the sub, an event its designers claim an Astute can withstand. It should be able to survive both the force of an explosion itself, along with the resulting bubble of compressed air, which usually dooms an injured sub.

The Astutes' missions will last for months at a time, but it can stay underwater for 25 years without refueling. Its only limitation, its only necessary connection with the surface world, is food. And, surely, that limitation will soon enough be conquered as well. Otherwise, nuclear subs are ghosts, the latest in a technological lineage haunting the last hidden places on the planet, whether its under the North Pole or a dozen miles off Long Island.​