Want to Put a Submarine on the Moon?

Niel Spillane: Started in 1953 as a Planning Engineer; Left in 1977

We didn’t know there was going to be a thing like Polaris at Electric Boat. It was a secret. The Navy had done conceptual work with submarines and missiles, and they said, “We want to put the two together.” A dozen of us went down to Washington and the Navy told us what they wanted and when they wanted it on station.

You talk about thinking out of the box – that was the mentality of the team I had working for me, and I felt the same way. When people say it’s impossible, you don’t know what’s impossible. I never did.

I would joke that if somebody said, “We want to put a submarine on the moon,” we could sit down and say, “If you really want to put something like that up there, this is what it’s going to take. This is what you need.”

I was the planner on that team that went to Washington. The Navy said, “Come back in eleven days. We want a developed schedule for all of the systems to meet this date. What do we have to do?” My team put together a thick book of schedules – the Navy said one copy, no more. It went down to Washington and became the guide for the program. We met the date.

Traditionally the engineers on the Hill had said, “This is what we want you to build,” but they didn’t tell anybody how to do it. The design was turned over to the structural departments, the superintendents of the individual trades, to build it.

You had this, you might say, culture of building surface ships. A submarine – certainly, until the 1940s – was a surface ship that was happy on the surface. It ran on diesel engines, it needed air, it needed water to keep the crews alive, and a short-term food supply, and it reluctantly went under the water, in a very dangerous area, and couldn’t survive there very long.

After the Nautilus, we were building a product that had so many unique technical challenges.

Suddenly we were being asked to build a nuclear submarine – a true submarine – that was going to stay underwater all the time. How do you keep the air clean for three months without any access to new air from outside? How do you get drinking water when you’re surrounded by a salt water ocean? They developed life support systems that NASA hadn’t developed until years later.

You couldn’t go with the old style of individual trades deciding how to put this complex vehicle together. I was hired as one of the first planning engineers. We became the schedulers. We said, “We will create a schedule saying when things have to be done if we are going to make the end date, and then we’ll monitor it.”

Change was very, very slow. The engineers didn’t like to be told, “You’re not producing the drawings in a sequence that’s going to support the ship’s delivery date.”

Sometimes I would send some of my staff people out with a schedule to one of the trade superintendents. He would smile at him, turn around, and throw it in the waste basket. “We don’t need your schedules. We know how to build a ship.”

But you don’t know how to build a nuclear ship. Nobody did. It was a good, maybe, ten years – into the early ’60s – before the culture shifted.