Quests for scientific knowledge and military superiority often go hand-in-hand. And nowhere is that more exemplified than in the nuclear-powered NR-1 research vessel. When it wasn't busy exploring the wonders of the deep ocean, its crew engaged the Soviet Union in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game of sub-sea espionage — much of which is veiled in secrecy even today.
Officially known as the Deep Submergence Vessel NR-1 — but "Nerwin" to its crew — this diminutive submarine began as a pet project of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy. It launched from General Dynamic's Groton facility in 1969, and while a majority of its functions were for legitimate scientific research — underwater search and recovery, oceanographic research and installation of underwater equipment — the NR-1 was built with black ops in mind. To that end, the vessel was never officially named or commissioned, allowing Adm Hymann to avoid congressional committee oversight and commission limits.
At just 43m long with a 4m beam and 4.5m draft, the 360-tonne NR-1 is the smallest nuclear submarine ever put into service. Powered by a custom-built miniaturised nuclear power plant, the Nerwin could achieve a sustained top speed of about four knots and dive as far down as 1000m.
It housed a crew of about 11 sailors — quite uncomfortably — for up to a month. Granted, the nuclear engine theoretically gave the vessel unlimited dive time, the quarters were so tight that the crew still had to eat and sleep in shifts despite their modest numbers. The galley consisted of a sink and a small oven, the shower facilities were a bucket you got access to once a week, the meal plan was strictly TV dinners, and the oxygen came from burning chlorate candles. Of course, the crew could always pop to the surface and resupply from the sub's dedicated tender ship, which also acted as a tow boat to drag the sub out to remote locations.
The NR-1 was so small that it was continually buffeted by currents. "Everybody on NR-1 got sick," Allison J. Holifield, who commanded the sub in the mid-1970s, told Stars and Stripes. "It was only a matter of whether you were throwing up or not throwing up."
Being a research vessel, the NR-1 lacked weapons — but it made up for that with some of the most advanced electronics, sonar and computers on the planet at the time. It also came with a boom-mounted manipulator, equally helpful when retrieving an F-14 and its prototype missile from the seabed, collecting bits of the Challenger after it exploded upon liftoff, or tapping into Trans-Atlantic communications channels to spy on the Soviets.
After nearly 40 years of secret service, the NR-1 was finally decommissioned and disassembled in 2008. However, the US Navy has re-collected a few of the vessel's components and used them to establish a submarine museum in Groton, the NR-1's birthplace and base of operations. [Stars and Stripes - Wikipedia - US Navy]