NORFOLK, Va. — Its oven was actually a toaster taken out of a P-3 Orion. It had no shower, and there were four racks for 11 sailors. The officer in charge slept on the deck behind the conn. And since the Nixon administration, the elite crew of the NR-1 could live on the bottom of the ocean for up to a month at a time.
National Geographic magazine called it “The Navy’s Inner Space Shuttle,” and in many ways, the now retired nuclear-powered, deep-submergence boat capable of 3,000-foot dives was just that.
“I’ve been in it for a month, and it gets a little ripe,” said Robert Ballard, sea explorer and former Navy man who, among scores of other finds, discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 and John F. Kennedy’s PT 109 in 2003.
Although he didn’t use the NR-1 for those missions, he was aboard for countless explorations, and with its deactivation Nov. 21, he said he hates to see this one-of-a-kind ship retire.
“We’ve lost an asset, and it’s too bad,” Ballard told Navy Times.
Launched in Groton, Conn., in January 1969, for years NR-1 was a secret submersible built to dive so deep it had wheels for moving along the ocean floor. Because of its nuclear reactor, its dwell time was not limited by batteries like other submersibles. But it was not fast, managing a little more than 3 knots submerged.
“That’s more than fast enough to operate near the ocean floor,” said Cmdr. John McGrath, NR-1’s final officer in charge. “I’m a big fan of the ship. I think it’s an incredible chapter in Navy history.”
In its time, NR-1 was manned by nuclear-qualified submariners who passed an interview with the director of naval nuclear propulsion, currently Adm. Kirkland Donald. McGrath is rarer still among this small fraternity of submariners, having previously served as NR-1 engineer from 1997 to 2000. He came back in 2007 and will oversee the yearlong process of de-fueling the sub’s nuclear reactor before its voyage to the Navy’s submarine graveyard in Puget Sound, Wash.
In its nearly 40-year career, the NR-1 was called for countless missions — from searching for wrecked and sunken naval aircraft to finding debris from the space shuttle Challenger after its loss in 1986.
On its final deployments, McGrath said, the NR-1 was still conducting “highly classified military missions.”
The real loss with the passing of the NR-1, according to Ballard, will be its highly advanced sonar. Unlike the system on an attack submarine, which is directed at the entire water column, NR-1’s sonar was pointed downward and could, as McGrath put it, detect an “empty soda can buried in the sand a mile away.”
In addition to having wheels, NR-1 was also unique in that it had three portholes and 29 external lights to illuminate the depths, along with 13 cameras, hooks, grips and a robotic arm.
It could dive deep because it was built with a very rigid hull and narrow hips — its beam was only 12½ feet. And unlike a combat submarine, it had very few “mechanical hull penetrations,” so while that made it stout, the ship could not discharge such things as wastewater while submerged.
“The limiting factor is the capacity of the toilet tank,” McGrath said. “Living conditions were a little primitive.”
Refueled once in its service life, the NR-1 still had some years left on the clock, but “it reached the end of its service life,” McGrath said. “A lot of our suppliers and logistic sources have long since gone out of business.”
It was taken out of service Nov. 21 in Groton at a ceremony attended by former NR-1 officers in charge Adm. Jon Greenert, current commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, and retired Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, who left the Navy in 2007 as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Ballard said he rode the sub with Giambastiani in the early 1980s, when Ballard was trying to prove to the Navy that it could use subs such as the NR-1 to lurk on the ocean floor and wait for targets at certain strategic chokepoints.
Before transferring to the Navy, Ballard was commissioned as an Army officer in 1965 with a geology degree, and he appreciated the value of terrain the way an infantryman does. He took that knowledge into the cold depths.
“During the Cold War, we tried to box up the Russians, whether it was along the Greenland-Iceland gap or the entrance to the Bosporus [Straits], or the entrance to Gibraltar,” he said. “The idea was chokepoints … where you’re in the terrain and [the enemy is] really silhouetted above your head.”
He said the Navy didn’t buy his concept.
But as for other possible NR-1 missions, such as checking the taps on Soviet undersea communication cables, Ballard keeps true to the silent service.
“I have no comment,” he said.