By Max Maxfield
While every ship and submarine is special to the Sailors who served aboard, some vessels are truly one of a kind. Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility partnered with the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum to preserve part of one such historic vessel.
Capt. Howard Markle, commander of PSNS & IMF, and Museum Director Lindy Dosher officially transferred ownership of the control room from the experimental nuclear research submarine NR-1 from the shipyard to the museum during a ceremony in the museum’s private storage area May 8.
Conceived by nuclear Navy pioneer Adm. Hyman Rickover, NR-1 was built after the loss of USS Thresher (SSN 593) to expand the Navy’s ocean investigation capabilities. Launched on Jan. 25, 1969, it was the only nuclear-powered research submarine ever built and was the only U.S. Navy submarine known to have retractable wheels. NR-1 carried out classified and unclassified operations for almost 40 years. It was inactivated on Nov. 21, 2008.
Employees from the Shipyard who worked with museum staff for more than two years to coordinate the transfer of the control room, as well as employees who disassembled the control room and reassembled it during the recycling process, were invited to the ceremony.
The ceremony was bittersweet for attendee Rich Emerson, information security officer for PSNS & IMF. Emerson served aboard NR-1 from 2000 to 2003, when he was a nuclear electrician’s mate chief.
“It was one of those jobs where I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again,” Emerson said. He said the cramped working conditions, lack of amenities and the long hours spent searching the bottom of the sea during missions made the assignment both challenging and rewarding.
“It was a small crew, and it was a very small space,” Emerson explained. “The submarine was only 13 feet in diameter. If you couldn’t heat food up to 350 degrees within 15 minutes in the Orion convention oven, or if it wasn’t microwavable, it wasn’t onboard.”
Charles Dastrup, a PSNS & IMF Shop 38 helper currently doing inactive vessel recycling work, did most of the hands-on disassembly of the control panels, preservation of the parts and instruments, and reassembling the entire control room once it was fully removed from the boat. He said it took a lot of work to preserve the final product, but he felt the effort was justified to preserve a piece of Navy history.
“The toughest part was actually the center console,” Dastrup said. “It was damaged when it came to me, and I had to bend and reform everything back to where it was. It was important to preserve the history behind it. This is one of those we just had to preserve. It’s a one of a kind.”
Markle said the partnership between PSNS & IMF and the museum is a win-win for both organizations.
“Thanks to Lindy Dosher and the entire museum team for setting this up,” Markle said in his remarks during the ceremony. “One of the things this does is not only help us remember what the crews did to keep NR-1 alive, it also helps us recognize the great stuff we do inside the shipyard, from the cradle-to-grave responsibility we take for the warships.
“I am honored to be part of the effort to make sure we got it over here to you,” Markle continued. “Talk about a true partnership.”
Dosher said this donation rates near to top of the list of additions to the museum’s collection in the 12 years she’s been the director.
“This is totally complete,” she explained. “I think this also means more to us because we worked with all the PSNS staff for years on this. They really put their hearts into making this a museum quality piece for us.”
The NR-1 arrived at PSNS & IMF on Nov. 25, 2009. The recycling effort on NR-1 began in January 2017, but discussions between the museum and the shipyard had already begun on preserving part of the sub.
U.S. Naval Undersea Museum Curator Mary Ryan visited PSNS & IMF twice to view the control room before it was delivered. After her second visit, when the reassembly was mostly complete, she knew this would be a special exhibit someday.
“We just couldn’t believe we were going to get this,” Ryan said. “It’s in almost original condition, with almost everything.”
There are some parts of the control room that were not reassembled for security reasons.
Ryan said she expects the partnership between PSNS & IMF and local Navy museums to continue to pay dividends.
“We are extremely lucky as the Naval Undersea Museum to have the only place in the country that recycles nuclear ships be 20 minutes away from us,” Ryan said. “The shipyard is so gracious in working with us.”
Both Dosher and Ryan look forward to the day when they can put the control panel on display in the actual museum. It may be several years before that happens.
Among NR-1’s most noteworthy unclassified missions, it:
– Searched for and recovered components of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
– Surveyed HMHS Britannic, sister ship to the RMS Titanic, in 1995.
– Discovered three ancient Roman shipwrecks along the Skerki Bank between Sicily and Tunisia during expeditions in 1995 and 1997.
– Investigated the remains of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor in 2002.
– Searched for the wreck of the USS Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones’ flagship, in 2008.
The equipment will be a highly significant addition to the museum’s artifact collection, which comprises more than 50,000 items related to naval undersea history, technology, and operations.