In 1958, a US submarine became the first vessel to reach the North Pole – by travelling under the ice. Its mission unlocked a whole new world for scientists to explore.
On 3 August 1958, the commander of the world’s first nuclear submarine made an extraordinary, if somewhat tongue in cheek, entry in his logbook: “Embarked following personage at North Pole…” wrote USS Nautilus commander William Anderson, “…Santa Claus, affiliation: Christmas.”
It was the final sentence of a celebratory record of the first crossing of the North Pole by any ship under its own power, a top-secret mission codenamed ‘Operation Sunshine’.
The transit took place with the 97-metre-long (319ft) submarine and its 116 crew (it’s not clear in the logbook if that includes Santa) entirely submerged under the ice, a feat impossible before the invention of compact nuclear-powered propulsion.
As Anderson announced to his crew: “For the world, our country, and the navy – the North Pole.”
Before Nautilus, submarines had to surface, or at least extend a snorkel above the waves, to take in air needed to run their diesel engines and charge their batteries for electric propulsion. But running off a nuclear reactor meant that Nautilus needed to do none of these things. In fact, Nautilus had already been deep underwater for three days before it reached the Pole and did not come back to the surface, near the coast of Greenland, until 7 August 1958 – spending a week beneath the waves and ice.
US President Dwight D Eisenhower sent his congratulations on “a magnificent achievement”, certain in the knowledge that the voyage would revolutionise submarine operations and any future warfare.
“It was an eloquent demonstration of a revolution in maritime warfare,” says Captain Justin Hughes, a retired nuclear submarine commander for the British Royal Navy and now honorary secretary of the Friends of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. “It provided proof that a nuclear-powered submarine could operate submerged, and therefore entirely stealthily, for sustained deployments.”
Today, nuclear-powered submarines can remain deep beneath the waves for months at a time, stealthy weapons of destruction and deterrence, carrying torpedoes and nuclear missiles. Since 1969, for instance, the UK has always had at least one submarine carrying nuclear weapons at sea – a role currently performed by its Vanguard-class boats.
And while the mission was a proving ground for the military potential of nuclear submarines, it was also a scientific milestone, helping to set the stage for a new era of exploration and discovery about the strange world beneath the Arctic ice.
But, even now, operating in the ocean beneath the Arctic ice is never routine.