Inside A Nuclear Submarine: Electric Boat workers, sailors prep the Missouri
Sunday, June 27, 2010
By Paul Edward Parker
|GROTON, Conn. — Entering the hatch of the fast-attack nuclear submarine Missouri feels like entering a three-story building through a manhole cover on the roof.
Even before reaching the last rung of a 10-foot ladder, the scent of fresh paint hangs in the air.
“New sub smell,” Corey Estabrooks, a painter foreman, says with a chuckle and a grin.
“Our department is involved in just about every inch of that boat,” he says. “We basically put our hands on everything because everything needs some kind of protection.”
The paint not only protects steel surfaces from corrosion, it also creates the atmosphere in which Missouri’s crew will live. White paint in the bathrooms. Gray in machinery areas. Green on many walls. And, in the officers’ staterooms and crew’s bunkrooms, the “beach sand” tan walls and light blue ceilings.
“When they’re laying in their beds and they look up and see a blue color that almost matches the sky, I guess when they’re down inside for six months at a time, it kind of helps, I guess, psychologically,” said Estabrooks, of Moosup, Conn.
Missouri floats in limbo these last few months of construction. After several years in the domain of some 10,000 designers, welders and pipefitters, carpenters, electricians and painters, the workers now share Missouri’s three decks with sailors, as the Navy prepares to take possession of its newest Virginia-class submarine. Sometime this summer, the workers will leave, and the ship will belong entirely to its crew.
Estabrooks and his workers put in 8- to 10-hour days seven days a week to finish the crew quarters so sailors can live onboard while shipbuilders work in other parts of the boat.
The living areas include the galley, where Seaman Paul Hites, of Tampa, Fla., cooks in a stainless-steel kitchen not much wider than his shoulders. “It’s hard work, but it keeps the morale of the crew good,” he says. “As long as everyone’s happy at the end of the day, then it’s a great job.”
Officers eat in a wardroom next to Hites’ galley, while enlisted personnel eat in the mess across from the galley. Simulated wood paneling adds a small touch of ambience in both rooms. The mess has five tables, requiring eating in shifts, and just enough space to pass by the tables or sit between them. The wardroom, with one table, is not much roomier.
Sleeping quarters, which sailors will call home for months at a time, are even tighter. Bunks measure 74 inches by 25 inches, with 18 inches overhead — about as roomy as a refrigerator. (Chief petty officers get an extra 3 inches in length, while officers also get an extra 2 inches in width plus an inch overhead.) Each sailor has a briefcase-sized locker for valuables and the bunks tip up to provide a “pan” a few inches deep for other belongings.
After finishing the crew quarters, the painters moved on to the torpedo room in the forward end of the ship on the lowest deck.
The torpedo room, the most spacious area in the boat, feels like a basketball arena compared to the rest of the cramped quarters. The space can carry troops or house a stockpile of torpedoes. In this room, Estabrooks and his crew use a lot of gray paint, the color for machinery.
Months before workers put Missouri together, the machinery that launches torpedoes paid a visit to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Middletown for testing. NUWC, where some 5,200 civilians, primarily Rhode Islanders, work on electronics and launch systems, plays a key role in America’s submarine forces.
“NUWC’s been involved since the early 1990s in defining what the needs were for the Navy and how most cost-effectively we could meet their needs,” said Dan Ryan, of Tiverton, NUWC’s liaison with the U.S. Defense Department for the Virginia-class program. “Most of our concentration is on the non-propulsion electronics sub systems that make up the command, control and communications on the submarine.”
NUWC will take part in every phase of Missouri’s life, from the early design of the Virginia-class sub to the testing of components during construction of Missouri to technical support, repairs and retrofits while the ship is in the fleet.
That includes testing the pumps that push torpedoes out of Missouri’s torpedo tubes. Silence is key in every operation aboard a submarine, because noise can give away a submarine’s position, lifting its veil of stealth.
“Each and every one of the air turbine pumps that is installed on the Virginia-class submarine comes through this facility and is certified both for operational performance and acoustic radiated noise signature,” said Mark Rodrigues, of Fall River, head of the platform and payload integration department at NUWC.
The air turbines, which drive ocean water through the torpedo tubes to eject the weapons, get tested and certified before installation, Rodrigues explained, because it would cost too much to replace them after the Navy accepts the submarine. Replacement would involve cutting a hole in the side of the submarine and patching it.
The petroleum scent of lubricants wafts through the lab where workers attach the pumps to a replica torpedo tube inside a life-sized replica of part of a Virginia-class hull that is surrounded by a tank full of water simulating the ocean. As the pump runs, hydrophones — underwater microphones — listen to make sure the pumps do not generate more noise than allowed when a torpedo is launched.
On board Missouri, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Thruston might be the man with his finger on the trigger.
A native of Jefferson City, Mo., Thruston sits at the fire-control station in Missouri’s control room. The computer screen at his station tracks the direction, distance, course and speed of nearby ships by compiling data from the sonar systems and the photonics mast, the electronic camera system that has replaced the traditional periscope.
“We can use that to safely drive the ship and stay clear,” says Thruston, “or, in a tactical situation, we can, you know, shoot a torpedo or fire a Tomahawk cruise missile from this system as well.”
Computer screens blanket Missouri’s control room. From the maps at the navigation station to images from the photonics mast to the readings of where the ship is and where it’s going, everything is computerized. Gone are the gauges and optical periscopes familiar from submarine movies. But the differences run deeper.
Submarines of the Virginia class make extensive use of commercial off-the-shelf technology, called COTS. Using COTS saves the Navy time and money. Designing and building computers rugged enough to withstand the rigors of battle can take 8 to 10 years, according to NUWC’s Alfred Jagaczewski, of Canterbury, Conn.
“You can imagine what it would be like operating a submarine with a 10-year-old computer,” Jagaczewski said. “Now we can put in the latest and greatest. We can change things very quickly.”
But COTS technology is not designed to survive battle. Instead, the boat has been designed to protect the equipment, such as electronics cabinets that absorb the shock created by a blast. But that doesn’t mean the equipment can be flimsy.
Enter Jagaczewski and his crew in the Survivability Lab, affectionately dubbed the Shake and Break Lab.
“We call it environmental testing, but it’s really survivability testing,” he said.
His lab subjects electronics equipment to high and low temperatures, high humidity, vibration, shock and noise. They conduct one such test on the linear biaxial impact machine, built by NUWC, that drops equipment on a platform that bounces briefly, simulating the initial shock and reverberation of an impact.
“Three! Two! One! Release!” shouts technician Thomas Dolan, of Middletown.
A metallic thud follows as a rack of electronic submarine components falls. Technicians monitor the forces generated by the test, as well as whether the equipment continues working during and after it.
Elsewhere at the NUWC facility, radio equipment and antennas receive attention.
NUWC is home to a “submarine” that will never go into the water, the Land-Based Submarine Radio Room. The room is set up and functions exactly like the radio room on board a submarine.
“We have actual submarine antennas on the roof,” said Darlene Sullivan, of Portsmouth, submarine communications technical project manager. “We have secure connectivity to a submarine combat system here.”
Besides running tests, the facility can go on the air as if it were a submarine to help diagnose communication problems the fleet may experience.
A Virginia-class submarine has several antennas that emerge on masts from the top of the sail, the tower-like structure projecting above the boat’s cylindrical hull. While primarily designed to communicate with command authorities and spy on potential neighbors, those antennas also allow crews, when conditions permit, to receive e-mail and Internet service.
Back on board Missouri, the Internet falls to Petty Officer First Class John Tyhurst, an information technology technician from Joplin, Mo., who also has the more sobering duties of making sure all the electronics on the boat are working properly. “Every computer system on board interfaces with my equipment,” Tyhurst says. That includes systems such as sonar, weapons and the ones that steer the submarine.
When a problem can’t be solved on board, NUWC also functions as the tech support hot line for the Navy’s nuclear subs.
Technicians aboard the boat can communicate with the Combat Systems Department via an Internet-like chat.
“No matter where they’re at, they can reach back here,” said Ed Rishmany, of Tiverton, the deputy department head.
When a sub calls in, an alarm assembles the appropriate technicians.
“Within this laboratory here are essentially all the submarine combat system configurations that are out in the fleet today operationally,” Rishmany said. “If a submarine has a combat system problem, we can ... try to re-create the problem and provide technical guidance back.”
Before then, though, Cmdr. Timothy Rexrode has to get the civilian workers off his sub. A first step in that process is sea trials, when Rexrode and his crew will take Missouri for a test drive, with about 40 shipbuilders and other vendors monitoring the boat for performance.
“Huge day,” said Rexrode, of Spencer, W.Va. “Sea trials is a challenging evolution. That’s when we, as the ship, finally get to take the lead role, so to speak, in making this happen and getting the final push to delivery.”
WHAT’S NEXT? Missouri’s future
SEA TRIALS: The submarine goes through several rounds of tests at sea, during which the crew makes sure the boat works properly.
DELIVERY: Electric Boat “hands over the keys” to the boat — although a symbolic key is often used at such ceremonies, the submarine doesn’t have a key.
COMMISSIONING: Missouri officially becomes a naval vessel. Set for July 31, nearly nine months ahead of the April 2011 date by which Electric Boat promised to deliver the submarine.
PSA: After about a year, Missouri will return to Groton for a “post-shakedown availability,” when the shipyard will address any problems that become apparent while the boat is operational.
SERVICE: During its roughly 30-year lifespan, Missouri will probably return to the shipyard several times for maintenance, modernization and repair projects.