Take close-up look at life in submarine

This being the 50th anniversary of the USS Nautilus' historic crossing of the North Pole, it seemed like a good time to visit Groton, Conn., and tour the world's first nuclear-powered submarine.

The long-since-decommissioned Nautilus is moored at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum on the Thames River.

Arriving at the museum's parking lot, just outside the gate of the Navy's submarine base, you have no doubt this is the right place.

Outside the museum entrance, several mini-submarines from various eras are on display, affording a quick history of the vessel's evolution.

Entering the museum building, the visitor is faced with a pleasant surprise: There is no charge.

A friendly docent approaches and volunteers a thorough and somewhat exhausting overview of the layout, which is helpful since there are no guided tours. His suggestion is to go through the Nautilus first.

The USS Nautilus was commissioned in 1954; on Aug. 3, 1958, it sailed below the North Pole.

It is a short walk from the museum to where the Nautilus is moored. The day is bright and sunny and turning warm. The ambience is enhanced by the presence of Navy personnel in crisp white uniforms gathering for a ceremony.

A small glass shelter sits atop the Nautilus where the public enters. The vessel at this point has been altered somewhat to accommodate a narrow stairway. For those in the XXXL-size range, this stairway is a good gauge. If you have trouble squeezing down here, there is no way you will fit through the sub's oval-shaped hatches.

Before beginning down the stairs, you are handed a listening device, which is automatically triggered at predetermined points to explain what you are seeing.

The self-guided tour takes you past the radio room, the senior enlisted officers' ward room and the crews' mess, all of which are walled off with plexiglass.

You also see the ship's galley (kitchen). Because of the difficulty of living in such tight quarters for long periods, it is said that submarine crews are served the best food in the Navy, which might or might not be saying something.

Of particular interest are the sleeping quarters, with their small lockers, fold-out desks and tiny sinks. In some quarters, narrow bunk beds are stacked four high with what appears to be about a foot of space separating one bunk from the one above.

This might be a good time to talk about being claustrophobic. If this is a big problem for you, you might want to skip this tour.

That said, the quarters are well lighted and ventilated, and you are never far from the exit, since only about half the ship is open to the public. Depending on your level of interest, figure on about 30 minutes or so for this leg.

Leaving the Nautilus and heading back to the main Submarine Force Museum, you will find an exhibition room on the second floor featuring Nautilus memorabilia.

The Submarine Force Museum boasts the most extensive collection of submarine artifacts in the world.

The museum traces the development of the submarine from the Revolutionary War to the present with historic photos, exhibits and simulations. You can even look through periscopes at the Thames River outside. There is also a museum gift shop.