BEFORE SUBMARINES can carry out their stealthy jobs beneath the waves, they begin their lives in pieces on land. The newest group of American nuclear-powered attack submarines is the Virginia class, also known as SSN-774, a collection of underwater ships that stretch 377 feet long. Their mission? To conduct surveillance, fight other vessels, and rarely, if needed, launch conventional cruise missiles at terrestrial targets. Their maximum diving depth? That’s a secret. Their top speed? Ditto.
What we do know is that each of these submersibles will protect a complement of sailors from the ocean’s incredible pressure—and from the nuclear reactor contained within, which powers everything from the propulsion system to the lights by heating water into steam. For workers at Electric Boat, an arm of General Dynamics responsible for many of these vessels, craftsmanship is more than a matter of pride. A single mistake in their meticulous metalworking could prove catastrophic in the murky depths.