"Nelson's Folly: The Technical Conception and Service History of USS Seaview"

by Mike Adamson B.A. (Hon)

When Admiral Harriman Nelson approached the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of the Navy for appropriation of funds to construct a unique class of nuclear submarine, his task was also a unique one in Naval annals: Seaview took shape on Nelson's drawing board during the 1960s, and took advantage of both the tried-and-proven technology of submarine design and a variety of new technologies, new principals of construction and engineering, that would extend the Navy's underwater capabilities to embrace what was seen at the time to be the inevitable human expansion into the world of "inner space." Perhaps the single most extreme venture into this conceptual world, Seaview was destined to be in a class apart, from conception onward, and nothing about her would ever be repeated.

 

During the 1960s Cousteau's Conshelf habitat program had established that underwater long-term habitation for scientific work was entirely practical, and the US Navy's Sealab series continued the work. The cancellation of Sealab III in 1965 following a fatality during aquanaut training was perhaps the first hint that the dream of the future may not come true. Though there were other habitats, and the small-submersible industry went from strength to strength over the following decades, major commitment to undersea habitation projects evaporated in the early 1970s.

 

Cancellation of the oil industry's advanced _Argyronet_ LILOS submersible in 1974, even after construction had commenced, basically left the USN NR-1 as the sole remaining deep research boat with major funding, and the outlook for the once-glowing dream of colonization of the last frontier -- the ocean -- a fading hope.

 

How did "Nelson's Folly" survive this wave of anti-oceanic fiscal sentiment? Her use as a military weapon alone supported her existence, and her scientific payload-return may be viewed as incidental to her strategic role. But the very timing of her design and construction tended to mitigate against her survival in service, and Nelson's legendary table-hammering speeches to the Joint Chiefs (transcripts available through NIMR Archives ref. NELSON.77-164 to 81-225) outlined her strengths in light of contemporary political and military pressures.

 

USS Seaview was conceived as long ago as 1959 with the already-highly accomplished Nelson's pioneering mathematical model providing for unprecedented diving ability. This called for two precepts, 1) that titanium compressed-gas alloy should become available in heavy industrial quantities, far greater than the USAF's and NASA's demands at that time, and 2) that the design feature a double pressure-skin structure within the casing, this sandwich- or laminate-section offering massive inherent strength, but allowing the interstitial cavity to be pressurized by internal gas-regulation machinery to a pressure precisely half that of the external ambient pressure. The effect was to create an "ephemeral structure," to use Nelson's term from his 1959 whitepaper tabled at the Conference for Advancement of Theoretical Engineering held in Geneva that year. In lay terms, the pressure between the hull skins supported fifty percent of the external ambient load, offloading the outer skin by that figure, whilst subjecting the inner skin to the same figure as the outer stress total. Both skins carried identical strain whilst together carrying double-strain, a clever way of tricking the physics to obtain unparalleled performance from the materials technology of the time.

 

Nelson could have selected 20% nickel Marriaging Steel, the first test-melts of this remarkable alloy were performed in 1960, but the Lockheed DeepQuest ended up being the only deep-diving craft to receive a hull of that composition. Titanium in such quantities was a massive stretch for the 1960s industry, but this represented only one of the materials-science hurdles to be cleared before the boat could become a reality.

 

Another major issue concerned the proposed use of revolutionary transparent plastics for the viewing structures that so characterized the craft and engaged the public's imagination, indeed earning her a famous name. While various traditional materials such as fused quartz were briefly considered, even conjectured for synthetic manipulation in ultra-high-temperature kilns, it quickly became apparent that the only available option was the then-new and still highly secret plastic known as polycarbonate.

 

Polycarbonate was invented by Imperial Chemical Industries in the UK and gained early fame as the material for the functionally indestructible helmets of the Apollo spacesuits. In weight-for-strength application there have rarely been superior materials, and in transparencies there are still few alternatives. Seaview's forward viewports remain the single largest polycarbonate thermoforming job ever performed, and Nelson's notes indicate that several million dollars' worth of parts were rejected before a perfect set was obtained. At four inches thick, the viewports are actually capable of repelling greater pressure than the surrounding metal hull. The clamshell shutters which protect them from contact-damage also preserve the delicate surface of the material, which, while able to withstand overwhelming impact, scratches and fogs easily. Nelson designed a renewable coating to further protect the polycarbonate, and at each periodic overhaul the viewports were freshly serviced.

 

Seaview's design had reached a practical stage early in the 1960s, and with the clearing of the titanium and polycarbonate hurdles, Nelson was able to approach the Secretary of the Navy and the Congress of the United States for funding. She would be exceptionally expensive, as much as six Nautilus-class boats, then departing service, or as much as three of the brand-new Ethan Allen-class FBMs (Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines). Also, while she carried sixteen silos, equivalent to both the Ethan Allen- and prior George Washington-class boats, her use as a strategic platform was limited by the fact that only eight tubes were dedicated Polaris silos, while offering greater tactical and overall operational flexibility with the balance housing the new Subroc short-range nuclear rounds in a vertical-launcher configuration. With these could be substituted a variety of other loads in sleeved silos, including surface-to-air intercepts, a Nelson design proposed for general Navy application.

 

Overall layout of the Seaview was exceptionally simplified, A and B decks only, with compartments arranged port and starboard of a longitudinal axial companionway, with enough triple-stack bunk space to accommodate the standard up-shift/down-shift complement, Nelson's aim being to minimize cost and complexity. This was not a popular approach amongst US technologists at this time, a fraternity for whom mastering exponential complexity was seen as an integral part of technical evolution. But this was never the Russian approach, and Nelson had communicated with many Russian engineers at scientific symposia during the 1950s (for which he was actually inspected, though as it happens not pilloried, during the McCarthy purge) and had absorbed something of their pragmatic, blunt approach to problem-solving. But in early discussions (see NIMR Archives, ref. NELSON 61-017 and 61-108) Nelson refers to the brilliant aeronautical designer Ed Heinemann of the Douglas Corporation (by that time McDonnell-Douglas) whose brilliant, exceptional A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber had defied all predictions and concepts of practicality by fulfilling a crippling mission specification at just half the all-up weight of any competing design. Nelson took on board much of Heinemann's approach, the concept being to make every component do the work of two, even three, by simple, clever design integration.

 

Thus Seaview packed unprecedented capabilities into a relatively small hull. In the same size and weight brackets as the George Washington-class (actual figures: 365' long, surface displacement 5, 995 tons, submerged displacement 7000 tons), she was considered small for her mission specification, and many technical doubts were raised by the engineering advisors to the Subcommittee (below). However, during exhaustive discussions, Nelson was able to allay these fears, and for a time was known amongst Naval architects as the "Heinemann of the Hydrosphere," a title proposed wryly, and with at least something of the anti-Skyhawk antipathy that still lingered elsewhere in the US aerospace industry.

 

The scientific mission for Seaview was seen as the first venture in cooperation between the Navy and the emergent civil underwater establishment, embodied in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was conceived that a marine equivalent of NASA would be commissioned in due course, and the Nelson Institute would be one of its founding, constituent bodies, with Seaview as the flagship of a new kind of fleet, a paramilitary, parascientific organization with equivalent senior civilian control.

 

This proposal met with massive resistance from the Navy, but the Congressional Subcommittee appointed to consider the application independently of the Fiscal Year 1963-64 Defense Appropriations Bill saw considerable merit in the scheme, and approved interim funding for a design-finalization study to be completed within 12 months. During this period Nelson's team of marine engineers were able to refine the technical proposal, redefine the costing structure, and provide adequate information to quash remaining politico-military and engineering objections at the resumption of hearings as an adjunct to the 1964-65 Bill.

 

Nelson's victory at the conference table was resounding. The decision was made in August 1964 to proceed to construction, and $100m was made available under the Defense Appropriations Act, with a further $20m being drawn from NOAA funding, to begin materials procurement and assembly of tooling and subsystems. Graving Dock #3 on the Thames River, Groton, Connecticut, was reserved for the new construction project, the task being placed in the hands of General Dynamics Electric Boat Division.

 

Major subsystem provisions included a Westinghouse S5W pressurized-water fission reactor, standard Polaris and Subroc tubes, this technology borrowed directly from Ethan Allen-class missile boats, plus the most modern computer and tracking systems projected for availability by an installation date of January 1966. Delays to titanium supply caused the prolongation of construction time, the computers and primary electronic systems were not installed until February 1967, and the hull was not closed until June of that year.

 

Seaview's engines were revolutionary in that Nelson conceived of a dual geared steam turbine system, similar to that of the Ethan Allen boats, but laid out with athwartships transmission gearboxes to drive twin externally-ducted lateral impeller series, rather than a conventional final drive through a gearbox to a constant-speed seven-blade ferobronze propeller. The arrangement offered both greater inherent quietness through elimination of propeller cavitation, and far superior thrust, enabling Seaview to cruise at speeds far in excess of other boats, indeed she was capable of in excess of 150% speed margin over service boats at her time of commissioning, without resorting to the exotic liquid-metal reactor system in theoretical vogue in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. Her maximum performance figures remain classified.

 

During the protracted final-design and construction stage of Seaview, Nelson was also working on the boat's remarkable ancillary support craft, known simply as the "Flying Sub." This was a pedantic description of her function and in no sense a proper designation, but she fell into no available category. While there was some pressure at one stage for her to be awarded the designation X-23, which would by implication snare separate Federal funding for development, Nelson resisted on the grounds that it would also oblige the prototypes to be handed over to NASA for essentially irrelevant aeronautical studies. In the end, no designation was awarded and the craft remained a maximum-security vehicle controlled by the NIMR, with limited Navy technical and material support.

 

Conceptually, the Flying Sub was one of the most remarkable designs ever to emerge. The specification for a submersible to also fulfill the role of a high-performance aircraft was at first glance utterly unreasonable, an impossibility to resolve the conflicting dynamic requirements. But Nelson had recognized and accepted that both aircraft and submersibles operate within identical fluid-mechanics environments, in which only density is a variable factor. Ultra-high-speed wind tunnel analyses were beginning to demonstrate that, at extremely high Mach-numbers, air begins to behave like a liquid, and apparently irrational body shapes become desirable. Using this as a yardstick he reached a compromise situation in which, while those Mach numbers would never be approached, the laminarity of the body shell offered reasonable aerodynamics as well as hydrodynamic performance.

 

Aerodynamic data based on the old Horten Brothers tail-less (flying wing) jet fighters of German World War II vintage were assessed and modulated into a much larger aircraft fitted with an essentially all-titanium structure (such as had already appeared on Kelly Johnson's Blackbird family) and driven by the radical Pratt & Whitney thermo-ram engine proposal. This was basically the 1950s "atomic engine" spoken of in fearful terms as already existing in the Soviet Union (a complete fallacy) for hypersonic aircraft, but P&W had developed a super-heater compressor that allowed the reactor component to be deleted from the loop. This was infinitely safer, reduced cost and complexity, and allowed for the burning of a conventional jet fuel for long-range aerial cruise, with remarkable fuel efficiency. A radioisotope thermoelectric generator was used to produce current for underwater operation.

 

The Flying Sub was constructed under tightest security by Lockheed's so-called "Skunk Works" under Kelly Johnson's personal supervision, and three hulls were completed between December 1965 and September 1969, at undisclosed cost underwritten by the CIA, which had understandable interest in the craft as a potential covert interdiction system (borne out by operational usage in the 1970s).

 

However, for all its technical brilliance, the Seaview program was hardly immune to politics, and each year the Congressional Subcommittee reviewed the project before granting further funding. The delays did not help, and each year Nelson was forced to do battle to keep the project alive. His "folly" was consuming public funds at a rate dwarfed only by the high-profile vote-winning Space Program, and as the 1960s drew to a close all eyes were on the Moon. It seemed the ocean's depths had been forgotten in the public fascination with the conquest of space, and the national imperative of beating the Russians at whatever game they were playing beyond the atmosphere.

 

It is a historic irony that the conquest of space, as envisioned by planners in the 1960s, was not destined to happen either, but that is another affair. As it came about, Seaview was launched at a quiet ceremony at the Groton yards in January 1969, totally overshadowed by the epic flight of Apollo 8 around the Moon at Christmas, and by the ongoing turmoil of the war in Vietnam. The launch of a new submarine was no publicity event, no matter how special, and Seaview seemed doomed to serve in anonymity. But for Navy brass and a Marines band, only a handful of engineers and old submariners watched the gleaming 6000-ton monster make her way down the slips and put her organic, manta-like forward hydroplanes and bizarre polycarbonate semi-spherical bow under the dark waters of the winter river for the first time. But amongst them had been the almost-venerable Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the Western nuclear submarine, and his quiet words with Nelson, as they watched the craft turned by tugs and brought around to her moors, have long been the subject of informed speculation.

 

Over the following two years Seaview's systems were checked, tested, upgraded twice and errors corrected, and her first sea trials conducted. Her first shakedown cruise began on 16th September 1970, sailing without Flying Sub aboard for a three-week cruise in the Atlantic during which her systems were thoroughly tested. Diving performance was assessed during progressive descents from periscope depth to that of the maximum performance of existing hulls, then through a staged experimental program to gradually press Seaview's unique envelope, culminating in a historic descent into the Cayman Trough on 3rd October during which the craft attained a depth of over 9000 feet, over four times the maximum diving performance of contemporary 1960s fleet submarines.

 

After further overhaul and modification, Seaview sailed again just after Christmas 1971 to conduct missile drills and launch a Polaris A3 (standard since 1967) on the Atlantic Missile Range from just off Cape Canaveral to a payload recovery point near Bermuda. The test was successful, and further missile launches were carried out during January - March 1972, being Subroc and other types, all flying with inert warheads.

 

During this period, Seaview's electronics, her sensory systems and computational parameters, were field-tested under ever more rigorous conditions, and Flying Sub came aboard for the first time. An intensive program was undertaken to examine and refine the hanger cycle, her docking/undocking procedures and underwater fueling and servicing techniques, the scout having already been thoroughly and satisfactorily test-flown by Lockheed pilots. She was put through her underwater paces by NIMR pilots in February and March 1972, then returned to Lockheed for final modifications to all three available examples. Bathyscaphs, minisubs and deep diving systems were also introduced and tested operationally at sea at various times during the whole seven-month shakedown period. When Seaview returned to Norfolk, Virginia in April of that year Nelson's final report was submitted to the Joint Chiefs and the Whitehouse to the effect that shakedown had been satisfactory.

 

USS Seaview was officially commissioned on July 26th 197. Draped in the vast launching flags she had worn two years earlier, "Nelson's Folly" was given her name and serial number, and wished well by members of House Committees who were still not convinced of her veracity, and never would be. But Nelson had won the last round, and the following day Seaview moved quietly to sea through Norfolk Roads under the command of Captain Lee Crane, hand-picked by Nelson himself from the cream of the strategic submarine force's new crop.

 

Seaview's operational career was not especially long by comparison to other hulls on charge with the service, but the official files of her exploits are voluminous and many remain classified Top Secret. A large proportion of her missions concern events whose nature remains under the administration of the CIA, the NSC or the Whitehouse direct, thus details are minimal in the public arena, and for available details of her operational record the appropriate files should be accessed directly, elsewhere in the NIMR Archives.

 

With the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam and the coming of the conservative Carter administration, military spending was progressively reduced. By this point it was apparent that the space expansion envisaged in the 1960s was not economically reasonable, and that the colonization of the ocean, while both much cheaper and technologically feasible, was undesirable for complex socio-economic reasons. Seaview lay on the cusp between technological generations: her computers were electromechanical dinosaurs, obsolete by 1980 as the PC revolution gained momentum; the Polaris that was her primary weapon itself was a victim of progress as the new Trident Missile System -- too large to be retrofitted to prior classes -- made its way to sea aboard the gigantic Ohio-class boats. Scientific operations were more economically pursued fro surface craft, and the Remote Operated Vehicle, like the JIM suit, was making serious inroads on the desirability of manned deep diving.

 

The modern military was optimized around different requirements and different threats, and it was inevitable that Seaview should be a casualty of budget cuts at the time of the transition from the Carter to Reagan Administrations. The new President's fixation with laser technology and space weapons put the seal of doom on many Naval undersea systems, and despite Nelson's valiant efforts to keep his creation afloat, along with his dream of an amalgamated undersea agency, Seaview was decommissioned on May 12th, 1991.

 

With great regret, her crew was broken up amongst other arms of the service, and Nelson managed one last victory. Citing her fabulous developmental cost, he succeeded in saving her from consignment to the breakers' yard for recovery of her untold wealth of titanium. Instead, the boat was placed in storage condition, her weapons removed and reactor defuelled, and moored at the Norfolk Navy Yard, shut down, cold and, ostensibly, forgotten.

 

Nelson placed an appeal before the Joint Chiefs in late 1992 at the time of the decision to reactivate the mighty Iowa-class battleships for a further operational period, but his motion was defeated by a 20% majority, and Seaview's name was never heard behind Pentagon doors from that moment forth.

 

Ten years after her consignment to pasture, during the geo-climatic catastrophe following the celestial event of July, 2002, Seaview was recommissioned and her crew brought back together. Only the overwhelming importance and peculiar circumstances of the mission mitigated for a return, and it was with much ill-feeling that the Joint Chiefs recognized the need. The boat was hurriedly updated with state-of-the-art computers, but her phenomenal design and engineering were again the edge Nelson, long retired and in failing health, needed to effect the research and take the direct action that would avert global catastrophe. With this track record in hand, and considering the sum spent to reactivate the boat and Flying Sub (one example of which was recovered from the National Air and Space Museum for the purpose), Seaview was temporarily retained on-strength with the United States Navy, pending reassessment of her operational capability and her applicability to contemporary situations and requirements.

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