A Dive on the NR- 1 Submarine

Onboard the NR-1

by gene carl feldman

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As I came down the ladder and looked around for the first time, I was entering a world unlike any I had ever been in before. Every inch of available space was filled with gauges, dials, switches, valves and people. The picture on the left is probably the least crowded view I had during my time on the NR-1, only because I asked everyone to stand behind me so that I could get this shot. That's Jon Howland standing just behind the control station and it gives you a pretty good idea of just how narrow the passageway really is.

After a few minutes, CDR. Olivier came down the ladder and closed the hatch behind him. I learned that unlike most nuclear submarines that have 3 or more access routes, the NR-1 has just one hatch. At shallow depths, a rubber gasket helps to keep the hatch sealed. However, as the sub dives to the lower part of its operating range (3000 feet), the hatch and hull form a metal to metal seal. This explains why CDR. Olivier paid such careful attention to cleaning the hatch seal before closing it.

CDR. Olivier describes the hatch on the NR-1 (479Kbytes)

Sprouting from the overhead were two groups of bright red valves that looked very much like some form of exotic marine life. I learned that these were a very cleaverly designed set of hydraulic valves, joined in such a way as to minimize the number of penetrations through the hull. When diving to the depths that the NR-1 is capable of going to, you want to have as few holes in your pressure hull as possible.

Part of the pre-dive checkout procedure we went through involved contacting the Carolyn Chouest via the UQC, which is essentially an underwater wireless telephone that uses sound rather than radio waves. In fact, I found it much easier to understand the dialogue between the Carolyn and the NR-1 on the UQC than communications via the more traditional radio link.

Listen in on the NR-1 and the Carolyn Chouest (213Kbytes)

Unlike most ships that I have been on where the captain has a special chair on the bridge from which he can watch and direct the operations, the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the NR-1 has what amounts to a small bed behind the two chairs in the control station. From this vantage point, CDR. Olivier (that's him on the lower left) confirmed that the NR-1 was ready to dive and gave the order to submerge the boat.

Get ready to dive on the NR-1 (329Kbytes)

This was the moment I was waiting for, although I was not really sure what to expect. The only evidence that I had that something was happening was through the pictures on the video monitors that were everywhere around the control station. The most obvious change was seen on the picture from the sailcam, a camera mounted in the forward part of the sail that looks out over the bow of the NR-1.

Much like a whale spouting, the first sign something was happening was a large plume of spray that shot many feet into the air. There was no sensation of sinking or movement. Much to my surprise, I learned that it is not all that easy to get the NR-1 to submerge. That large, red sail acts much like a balloon and until all the air is forced out through the vents, the boat will not go under. That usually happens when the boat reaches approximately 30 feet. At that point, the large horizontal control surfaces can get a grip on the water and help to drive the boat down at a fairly steep (13 degrees) angle.

Once we reached 100 feet, the boat leveled off and all systems were checked before continuing our dive to the bottom, which in this area was about 314 feet. (EM1 Stadel, left and Lt. CDR. Hopkins, right).

Every system on the NR-1 is carefully monitored. Because of the cramped conditions, all switches that might be in harm's way are either protected by metal guards or the entire panel is covered with a hinged plate of plexiglass. Unlike ships on the surface, a submarine is a very smooth riding vessel, since the effects of the weather and waves are generally not felt below 100 feet.

CDR. Olivier describes some of the instruments used on the NR-1 (324Kbytes)

After a few hours, I realized that something was not right. It took me a while to figure out exactly what it was, but then it came to me. I guess I grew up watching too many movies in which submarines are either being stalked by surface ships, or are themselves the hunter. Throughout those movies, one hears the continuous sound of sonar pings reverberating off the hull. That's what was missing. The NR-1 was essentially silent.

However, towards the middle of the dive when we were preparing for our bottom operations and wanted to know exactly where our surface support ship the Carolyn Chouest was, CDR. Olivier asked that the sonar ranging device be turned on. So, for the rest of the dive, and all during my time below the control station, flat on my stomach in the observation area with my eyes pressed against the viewports, that familiar, and very reassuring sound could be heard throughout the boat.

Listen to the sounds of the NR-1's sonar (63Kbytes)

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Gene Carl Feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov ) (301) 286-9428
Todd Carlo Viola, JASON Foundation for Education (todd@jason.org)
Revised: 19 April 1996