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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Smallest Sub

No one is quite sure when Admiral Rickover decided the Navy needed a small nuclear-powered submarine that could drive along the deepest depths of the ocean and be used for a variety of missions. The civilian world had been using deep-sea submersibles for some time, but it was not until the Thresher accident that everyone realized the need for a vessel that could remain underwater at the deepest depths for very long periods of time. It was developed and built under conditions of extreme secrecy and was never even designated a warship. It had a variety of bizarre features, including tires on the bottom of the hull that would literally permit it to drive along the bottom, and sideways thrusters fore and aft that allowed it to hover in one exact position.

Lee Vyborny was one of the original crew members on the tiny NR-1, a sub that contained a midget nuclear reactor, which developed a mere 130 horsepower, of which only 60 could be used for propulsion. The crew quarters were tiny, and there was no stateroom for the commander, who would usually sleep on the floor next to the control panel. The reactor was designed so it could be operated by one man because the crew never exceeded eight people, usually only four on duty at any given time.

In an uncharacteristic mistake, Rickover tried to keep the cost of development and building down and required that as many of the ship's components as possible be purchased off-the-shelf. He was under the mistaken impression that the commercial deep sea industry was well developed and the parts standardized. At the same time, he insisted on testing these parts under the most extreme conditions. They had never been designed for the role he intended, and the result was costly failures and time spent to develop alternatives. The early computer they used was a midget and capable of only fourteen simultaneous operations, in contrast to the original PC, which could do many thousands at once.

Rickover's presence was ubiquitous. Everyone was suitably cowed, but he knew the bureaucracy well and how to manipulate them. The story of the two dead mice is illustrative. A habitability team was due for an inspection. Their job was to verify that a new ship was liveable. The NR-1 had so many discomforts for the crew, Rickover knew he might be in trouble, so he sent out an aide to find two dead mice and to hide them in the boat. The habitability team was delighted to find a dead mouse, thinking they would be able to reprimand the famous admiral. Instead, they were the ones on the receiving end. He told them they had done a terrible job and didn't belong in the Navy. "I know there were two dead mice on that boat," he shouted, "I bought them! You only found one! Get out of here!"

When lambasted by the General Accounting Office for the NR-1's cost overruns and asked to explain the excess, Rickover replied with a sarcastic letter, reprinted in full in the book, suggesting their analysis was similar to a review of Lady Chatterly's Lover by Field and Stream magazine. The letter concluded, "A cursory review of the subject report leads me to conclude that its authors, likewise, lack comprehension in the manner of accomplishing research and development. Therefore, I believe no useful purpose would be served by detailed comments on my part."

In order to withstand the enormous pressures at depths to which the little sub was expected to go, the hull had to be perfectly round. The twelve-and-a-half-foot diameter hull could be out of round by no more than 1/16th of an inch. That required special manufacturing processes. The crew had to undergo special psychological tests to see whether they could stand being cooped up in tiny spaces for long periods. Submariners who had been successful at resisting the stresses of a regular submarine wound up in fistfights after just a few days when tested under the conditions expected on the NR-1.

The boat was expected to remain under water indefinitely, but practical considerations limited the length of the voyages: food and waste. The ship had no galley, so the crew subsisted on TV dinners purchased in large quantities and kept frozen until they were needed, and when the waste tank was full, they had to surface.

Ironically, the NR-1 has outlasted larger and more famous mega-submarines. According to the author, it continues to conduct classified missions in addition to being a valuable resource for many universities and research institutes for tamer exploratory searches of the ocean's depths.

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