January 21: World’s First Nuclear Submarine Launched at Groton


On January 21, 1954, at 10:57am, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, slid off a dry dock at General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut and splashed into the waters of the Thames River, officially launching the United States Navy into the nuclear era.

First Lady Mamie Eisenhower christens the USS Nautilus moments before the submarine was officially launched into the Thames River. (Bates Littlehales, National Geographic)

Hundreds of spectators, including General Dynamics employees, military brass, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, and scores of reporters were gathered along the riverbank to witness the momentous occasion.  In the summer of 1952, then-president Harry Truman had traveled to the Groton submarine shipyard to lay the keel of the Nautilus; only a year and a half later, the revolutionary sub was ready to begin its first trials in the water.  As the first vessel in the world to be powered by a nuclear reactor, the Nautilus could travel much farther and faster than traditional, diesel-based submarines; with nuclear-powered state-of-the-art air and water purification plants on board, the crew could go for months without replenishing supplies or even surfacing for air.

On that January morning, Mrs. Eisenhower kicked off what is now a storied tradition of First Ladies christening U.S. Navy vessels as she broke a customary bottle of champagne across the Nautilus’ bow, which was draped in layers of patriotic bunting.  The sub would endure a rigorous series of testing and trials for nearly a year before officially embarking on its nuclear-powered maiden Naval voyage from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico, which immediately became the longest single submarine trip in history.  Three years later, the Nautilus became the first vessel to sail over (or rather, underneath) the North Pole, and the submarine continued to shatter speed and endurance records throughout its 26 years of active service.

The Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 and, three years later, designated the official ship of the state of Connecticut by the General Assembly.  Today, it is permanently docked at the Submarine Force Museum on the U.S. Naval Base in Groton, and is open to the public year-round as a floating museum.  A new chapter in naval history, launched today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

U.S. Navy, “History of USS Nautilus,” Submarine Force Museum

U.S. Navy, “Notable Ships: Nautilus (SSN-571),” Naval History and Heritage Command

Slideshow – USS Nautilus: Then And Now,Hartford Courant