It’s a challenge museums will always face: fulfilling our missions means collecting more artifacts than we have room to display. The advent of online platforms like social media, websites, and photo-sharing sites has substantially increased virtual access to artifact collections, to the delight of curators and educators. But there’s a catch — artifacts must be digitized to be shared online. Over the last year, the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum has worked to digitize one of our largest and most significant artifacts: the control room equipment from NR-1.
NR-1 was the definition of unique as the U.S. Navy’s only nuclear-powered research submersible. Launched in 1969, NR-1 and her elite crews carried out a host of
classified and unclassified operations for almost 40 years. Highlights of her unclassified missions include identifying and raising components of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 and investigating the wreckage of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor in 2002. NR-1 was deactivated 13 years ago this month, on November 21, 2008.
The U.S. Naval Undersea Museum acquired NR-1’s control room equipment in May 2018
, after the consoles were carefully removed during recycling by the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF)
. Each console had to be disassembled into pieces to fit through the tiny ship’s hatch, then painstakingly reassembled into its original configuration.
Given NR-1’s unique status and history, our acquisition of her control room equipment drew interest from the submarine community and public at large. When could they see it on exhibit? The equipment’s large size and gallery constraints precluded its display in the short term. As we considered longer-term solutions, we published photographs, crafted social media features, and staged a special behind-the-scenes tour for the public.
Then an incredible opportunity presented itself. The Arc/k Project, a non-profit organization that digitally preserves cultural heritage in 3D, contacted us offering to digitize artifacts as 3D models. We had previously partnered with The Arc/k Project in 2016 to create 3D models of several artifacts in our collection, including a MK V diving helmet, a Trident missile payload section, and a "JIM" atmospheric diving suit. This time around, NR-1’s control room equipment was an immediate, obvious choice. Capturing it as an interactive 3D model would provide widespread virtual access and allow close-up exploration of the equipment’s many intricate components.
Museum staff enthusiastically hosted a team from The Arc/k Project in October 2020 to photograph NR-1’s control room. Photogrammetry is a 3D documentation technique which uses photography, math, and powerful computer processing to combine photographs taken from many angles and heights. For large artifacts like the NR-1 consoles, this required three days of shooting and more than 5,000 photos! The Arc/k Project team also photographed additional objects after the NR-1 shoot was completed, capturing other historic artifacts such as an AN/UYK-7 computer set
, an ADS 2000 atmospheric diving suit
, and a horological mine from the Civil War
Following the visit, The Arc/k Project’s photogrammetry experts derived the photo data into highly-detailed digital 3D models using photogrammetry software, making manual corrections where needed to accurately depict reflective surfaces, textures, and other details. Museum staff worked closely with the Arc/k team throughout the process to discuss alterations, draft artifact descriptions, and develop interpretive annotations for the NR-1 model.
The finished NR-1 digital model exceeded our expectations — the accuracy and level of detail are extraordinary. In some ways, the model provides better access than the museum could offer in an exhibit, as virtual users can maneuver around the model and zoom in to see details up close.
In reflecting on what it means to us to share this digital model with the public, I remembered the words of an NR-1 crew member interviewed before NR-1’s impending inactivation. “There’s lots of history involved with NR-1 and it would be a shame to just let her fade in history,” commented Chief Sonar Technician Lyndel Todd in 2007. “I [hope] there will be a push to save some of that history and preserve it.” As we mark the 13th anniversary of NR-1’s inactivation this month, it’s a privilege to help save some of that history — now accessible to more people than ever before.