Tuesday, July 04, 2006

True undersea adventure

I'm going to break from the usual around here to review a book I just finished. It's called Dark Waters: An Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub, by Lee Vyborny and Don Davis.

The 1960s were a period of stunning technological change and exploration, both in space, in the air, and under the water. It was the era that excited the young imaginations of so many of us, and inspired the GI Joe Adventure Team. But while many of these developments and adventures took place in the public eye, some went on in near secrecy.

A prime example of this is the NR-1, a one-of-a-kind, deep-diving, nuclear powered mini-sub developed by the US Navy. Announced under the cover of being a scientific vehicle, in truth the little sub was primarily designed for military applications (though in later years, its unique capabilities would lead to many scientific discoveries).

The NR-1 could dive at least 3000 feet, hover above the bottom like a helicopter, roll along the ocean bottom on a pair of retractable wheels, view the bottom through cameras and manned viewports, and manipulate objects using a robot arm, and lift heavier objects with tines like a forklift. Most significantly, it's nuclear power plant could supply its small crew (no more than a dozen men) with air and drinking water indefinitely, drive powerful lights, and allow stays on the bottom for up to a month (though in cramped and inhospitable conditions).

Many of the NR-1's missions remained classified, but this book still provides a fascinating and thrilling account of the little sub's creation, testing, and many of its adventures. Seemingly every mission of the NR-1, even the seemingly most routine, was filled with peril and the constant threat of disaster. Access to the interior of the sub was through a single, tiny, hatch, it routinely dived into depths and locations where no other sub on Earth could come to its rescue. It challenged uncharted canyons, unknown currents, abandoned mine-fields, and lost fishing nets in its missions, and being the first-ship of its kind, the crew was literally making up the rule-book as they went along.

One of the most fascinating accounts deals with the recovery of a lost American fighter-plane and the then-new and top-secret Phoenix missile from the bottom of the Mediterranean. Not only was the mission dangerous and technically challenging in itself, but it was complicated by the layers of secrecy (the men on the submarine were not even told what the missile they were looking for looked like!) and aggressive Soviet spy ships that circled like hungry wolves, desperate for any opportunity to snatch the missile for themselves.

Though the NR-1 often operates under the cloak of secrecy, since the fall of the Soviet Union it has increasingly cooperated in scientific missions, and among its high-profile assignments was recovery of wreckage from the Space Shuttle Challenger that lead directly to solving the cause of that terrible disaster.

This is a wonderful book, much of it derived from Lee Vyborny's own experiences as a member of the NR-1s first crew. It sheds light on a fantastic machine and the men who created it, a machine in its own way as bold and advanced as the Apollo Moon missions. But unlike the Apollo program, the NR-1s missions are ongoing, and it continues to sail today.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this book is still in print. I discovered my copy in a book liquidator, and Amazon claims to be able to order a new copy in "1-3 weeks" of which I am doubtful. But it's well worth tracking down on Amazon or through a library or used bookstore.

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