January 21: Launching the World’s First Nuclear Submarine


On January 21, 1954, hundreds of spectators, including General Dynamics employees, military brass, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, and scores of reporters gathered along the banks of the ThamesRiver to witness a momentous occasion. At 10:57a.m., the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, slid off a dry dock at General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, 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)

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 sub could go for months without replenishing supplies or even surfacing for air.

On that January morning, Mrs. Eisenhower kicked off the now storied tradition of first ladies christening U.S. Navy vessels as she broke a bottle of champagne across the Nautilus’ bow, which was draped in layers of patriotic bunting. For the next year, the sub would endure a rigorous series of testing and trials before officially embarking on its nuclear-powered maiden Naval voyage from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico. That trip immediately became the longest single submarine journey 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, was 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