Can Our National Flagship Be Saved?

We step on board the SS United States—60 years after the superliner first appeared in Popular Science—and find a rusting but still spectacular icon

She's the most famous ship that never sank, and a technological triumph of her era. At her launch, she boasted the most extensive use of lightweight aluminum in any structure, full air-conditioning, and the most rigorous fireproofing ever seen in a commercial vessel. She was fast, too—the speed record she set on her maiden transatlantic voyage in 1952 still stands.

Today, in this age of bloated, outrageously overendowed cruise ships, our elegant national treasure, the SS United States, languishes at a pier in Philadelphia. There, within sight of the diners downing Swedish meatballs at Ikea, she awaits either a successful preservation bid, or the scrapyard. With luck--and a committed backer--it will be the former, says Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer, renowned naval architect William Francis Gibbs. "The SS United States is an American original, an iconic symbol of the nation's post-war pride, national purpose, and industrial might," Gibbs notes. "Not only is she still afloat, but even in her dotage, she symbolizes something important about ambition, innovation, and this nation's can-do spirit. She tells us that anything is possible."

A May 1952 feature in Popular Science noted the vehicle's ambitious goal of raising the bar in nautical performance, safety, and luxury—and stealing supremacy from the Britain's RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth.

I wanted to see for myself what the experience of her three-day crossings might have been like, so I went aboard recently with several of the Conservancy's leaders. Though all the furnishings and most of the vessel's hardware have been removed and sold or auctioned off, the ship remains in remarkably good condition. Critically, it's also still got its mojo. Even in its embattled state, the United States commands authority and respect.

SS United States
Beyond her technological achievements, the United States, which carried 1,928 passengers and 900 crew on Atlantic crossings between 1952 and 1969, is a marvel of mid-century design. In our 1952 article, we touted her elegance: "There is a lightness and easiness about her lines. The bow springs forward not sharply, but cleanly and in harmony with the bulk behind it. The white superstructure and the great stacks lie easily on the sleek black hull."Eric Adams
SS United States
The ship's knife-like prow helped her cut through the water at up to 38 knots, or 44 mph. Her four Westinghouse steam turbines generated 240,000 shaft-horsepower. The SS United States is 990 feet long and 101 feet across, with 12 decks and a 47,000-ton water displacement. By comparison, the RMS Titanic was similarly sized—882 feet long and 92 feet wide, with 9 decks and a 52,000-ton displacement. (SS United States has a lower displacement than Titanic thanks to the former's lightweight construction. Her contemporaries, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, each displaced about 80,000 tons despite being similarly sized.) By the way, the current world's largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's MS Allure of the Seas, is a relative beast: 1,187 feet long, 198 feet across, with 16 passenger decks. It displaces a mammoth 100,000 tons.Eric Adams
SS United States
This door on the port side shows the deteriorating paint. The ship was assembled with 1,500,000 aluminum and steel rivets and more than 1,500 miles of welding. Many of the ship’s capabilities and specifications were kept secret, since the U.S. government—which helped finance construction—held the right to convert the ship to a troop transport in times of war. The converted vessel could carry up to 15,000 troops—though it’s unclear if they would all be permitted to use the ship’s pool.Eric Adams
SS United States
The starboard-side promenade on the Promenade Deck was fully enclosed, but with operable windows. SS United States was the first fully air-conditioned passenger ship. That posed a particular challenge to engineers, since air-conditioning at sea is more challenging than on land—there's greater moisture and greater disparities between interior and exterior temperatures. Designers installed traps to collect moisture, and thermostatic controls in each cabin to warm the air—circulated at a steady 50 degrees—to the occupant's preference.Eric Adams
SS United States
This is the Man Deck passageway, with the remains of first-class cabins on the right. All cabin furnishings were made of aluminum or plastic instead of wood, lending the interior design a distinctly modern look. The color schemes ranged from soft tones to brighter hues. Think Mad Men at sea.Eric Adams
SS United States
The tourist-class smoking room on the Main Deck, sitting just forward of the grand staircase. Allure of the Seas—Royal Caribbean's monstrous flagship—has 25 restaurants and cafes, an ice-skating rink, and a two-deck dance hall, but I'd take this any day. (Well, minus the smoking...)Eric Adams
SS United States
The port-side foyer on Promenade Deck. Through this door sits an small dining area that’s separate from the main dining room. The black paint here is the original color.Eric Adams
SS United States
The grand staircase on the Main Deck level. The staircase was built of steel and linoleum. There are also elevators, just opposite the staircase.Eric Adams
SS United States
The ballroom on the Promenade Deck. The ship contained a multitude of luxuries—sculpted glass decoration, a plaster relief map of the North Atlantic, anodized aluminum panels in soft colors, and many sculptures. The only wood on the ship was a butcher’s block and a grand piano, which was made of a rare fire-resistant wood.Eric Adams
SS United States
One of the two movie theaters on SSUS, this one on the Promenade Deck, for first-class and cabin-class passengers. There's also a swimming pool, barber shop, night club, library, and several lounges and beauty shops onboard.Eric Adams
SS United States
This passageway from the port-side dining area on the Promenade Deck into the ballroom contains the only remaining original and untouched surface on the ship—the white ceiling in the curved passageway. This is one of the few jogs in the ship’s layout—most passageways are long straightaways in which you can distinctly see the curvature of the floor.Eric Adams
SS United States
Looking aft from the port side of the Bridge area. The railings are all long sections of extruded aluminum, and the decks, per our original reporting in 1952, are “remarkably open, swept free of the all possible protrusions and fittings, with few ups and downs.” The stacks, shown here, are fitted with panels that wind-tunnel tests proved would keep exhaust fumes clear of all decks, regardless of the ship’s speed.Eric Adams
SS United States
The ship's port-side Sun Deck, looking aft through a porthole. The ship had appearances in many movies—including West Side Story—and hosted a long list of dignitaries and personalities on its voyages, including Bob Hope, Princess Grace of Monaco Harry Truman, and Rita Hayworth. (Former President Bill Clinton sailed on SSUS in 1968, and is a strong supporter of current efforts to preserve the ship.) The ship was taken permanently out of service in 1969, after a decade of financial struggles plagues the ship and her operator. It was a victim of labor disputes, skyrocketing oil prices, and the growing jet age, which spawned a fundamental shift in how people chose to travel.Eric Adams
SS United States
The view from above the Bridge, looking forward. Despite her superficial rust and peeling paint, the SS United States is still structurally sound, and offers over half a million square feet of "prime waterfront real estate," Gibbs says. She hopes the ship will become a mixed-use development and museum complex, and with retail, hospitality, and event space.Eric Adams
SS United States
The restored vessel could also include the SS United States Center for Design and Discovery, a museum and educational center that Gibbs envisions would explore the ship's history as well as "themes of 20th century industrial design and innovation, the transatlantic liner era, and American cultural identity and artistic expression." The Conservancy estimates that it would cost $1 billion to return the ship to full maritime service, but a fraction of that to restore it and make it usable as a permanent installation.Eric Adams