On March 17, 1959, USS Skate (SSN 578) became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole, traveling 3,000 miles in and under Arctic ice for more than a month.
From Arctic Submarine Lab
The most iconic photographs of our submarines – the ones that do the best job of showing off our worldwide reach – are the ones of submarines surfacing through the Arctic Ocean ice canopy. There’s just something about them that captures the imagination. Maybe it’s the stark contrast between the black submarine hull and the white, almost alien arctic environment. Or maybe it’s the combination of modern technology with a frozen, primitive landscape.
So how did our submariners develop this capability?
It was 1959 and our nuclear submarines were the latest Cold War celebrities. The Submarine Voyage ride opened at the Disneyland Park, and people were swarming to theaters to see a pair of submarine movies – On the Beach and Operation Petticoat. Just one year earlier, USS Nautilus (SSN 571) had thrilled the world by crossing the Arctic Ocean beneath the ice pack. So, what could the Navy possibly do to top this feat?
Well, the Navy wasn’t focused on publicity or movies. We urgently needed to ensure that our submarines were capable of operating anywhere in the Arctic, any time of year. Nautilus and USS Skate (SSN 578) had cruised the polar sea the previous summer when the sunlight was plentiful and the ice relatively thin. But could a boat do the same during March when the ice was at its thickest and the sun just starting to return from its winter hibernation?
Skate was sent back north in March 1959 to prove that we could. Adapting underwater cameras and bottom-sounding sonars so they could carefully monitor the overhead ice canopy, they were able to locate a crack (polynya) in the ice pack frozen over by a foot of ice. Then the crew put into action a technique that they had developed for ice breakthrough.
Would this as-yet unproven procedure work? Would the hardened sail stand up to the ice or collapse under the strain? Nobody could know for certain until they actually tried it.
Rising vertically, Skate slammed into the ice and smashed its way through – the first submarine to ever accomplish this. Then, for good measure, the crew, along with a small team of civilian scientists, did it nine more times before returning home.
But surfacing through the ice wasn’t their only accomplishment. They also demonstrated that a newly-devised buoyant communications cable could receive radio messages when allowed to float up against the bottom side of the ice canopy.
Mission accomplished. These polar pioneers proved that our nuclear powered submarines were viable Arctic fighting machines.
1959 seems like such a long time ago. But the legacy of innovations made by the crew and scientists embarked aboard Skate back then still lives on today. Although submarine technologies have come a long way since then, we still rely on our top sounding sonars and underwater cameras to find suitable places to surface, and we still use essentially the same procedure developed by Skate to break through the ice canopy. And we still use the buoyant cable antennas to keep our submarines in touch with home while they are operating under the ice.
Despite the fact that we still use tried-and-true methods, our innovative spirit remains strong. Last March, the Navy-civilian team at Ice Camp Nautilus demonstrated the high-latitude capability of our next-generation communications satellite – Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), which will provide a high-capacity link for Department of Defense Arctic operations through the next several decades.
As the Navy implements its Arctic Roadmap and develops a fleet-wide Arctic capability, take a moment to remember those who started the ball rolling 56 years ago this month.