The United States Navy's 4,000 ton USS Nautilus was recognized as the world's first operational-level, nuclear-powered submarine when it was commissioned in September of 1954 powered by its STR (S2W) nuclear unit. The powerplant scheme gave the boat considerable "legs" under the sea when compared to diesel-electric types of the time and further work resulted in the equally-notable USS Seawolf which came online in March of 1957. The second boat originally operated with an S2G reactor until 1960 when this was replaced by the S2Wa. Both boats were evolutionary, if expensive, steps in the American nuclear-powered submarine fleet program which went on to begat the "Skate-class" - a four-strong group led by USS Skate (SSN-578) herself - these boats intended to find more economical means for the expensive and large underwater hunters. The group was developed under the banner of the USN's "SCB-121" program.
USS Skate was built by Electric Boat beginning on July 21st, 1955 and was launched on May 16th, 1957. Formally commissioned into service on December 23rd, 1957, she joined by sisters USS Swordfish (SSN-579) in September of 1958, USS Sargo (SSN-582) in 1October of 958, and USS Seadragon (SSN-584) in December of 1959. Swordfish and Seadragon emerged from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard while Sargo was born at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The general focus of SCB-121 was in bringing both size and operating/construction costs of types such as Nautilus and Seawolf down to acceptable levels, putting a focus on a smaller, slower boat operating through a more compact nuclear unit. Design settled on a reworked Tang-class hull with the reactors in play becoming the S3W and S4W units. The Tang-class were, themselves, direct descendants of the ground-breaking World War 2-era German Type XXI U-boat attack submarines.
USS Skate, as finalized, was given a running length of 267.6 feet and a beam measuring 25 feet. It was powered by the aforementioned S3W reactor and could reach surfaced speeds of 15.5 knots while averaging up to 18 knots under the water line. Aboard was a complement of 84 including eight officers and armament (taken from the Tang-class) was 6 x 21" (530mm) bow-facing torpedo tubes and 2 x Aft-facing tubes of similar caliber. The boat carried BQR-2 sonar paired with the SQS-4 active scanning sonar unit.
At the time of her commissioning, USS Skate became just the third USN nuclear-powered submarine in service and its own stepping-stone design in the USN nuclear-powered submarine program. She led an operational service life into 1986 before being recycled in March of 1995, recoding notable actions throughout the Cold War period: she became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole (March 17th, 1959) and the first to traverse the Atlantic while submerged. She was also the second submarine to reach the North Pole region and did much to further / fine-tune USN submarine tactics and general operational deployment during the tumultuous period between East and West.
The class typically operated from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and Skate managed voyages across the world including Scandinavian, Mediterranean, and Caribbean waters. Her decommissioning was had on September 12th, 1986 and the name was struck from the Naval Register on October 30th, 1986. She was disposed at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in March of 1995 brining about her formal end.
During her time at sea, the boat was awarded a pair of Navy Unit Commendation medals and no fewer than three Meritorious Unit Commendations.
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