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My first breakthrough came through a casual conversation, and it was a revelation. I learned that I had been asking the wrong questions all along. Of course we would not be able to display a modern nuclear submarine propeller. But what I discovered—incidentally and almost accidentally—was that propeller data up to the Sturgeon-class of fast attack submarines (SSN 637, mid-1960s) was declassified. There were two reasons that no one had ever told me this before. First, although they had been declassified, they had not yet been "approved for public release." So, much of the Navy outside of the hydrodynamic research community did not know this. Secondly and more importantly, I hadn't asked.

This was my trump card, and I played it as soon as it was dealt me. Quite literally, it was the key that unlocked the vault (although that event was still off in the uncertain future). Of course we could have a 637 propeller; when could we pick it up? This in turn led to a whole new set of questions regarding the object's exact size, weight, means of transportation, and potential placement at the National Museum of American History.

Earlier, I mentioned that the size and weight were too great for placement in the submarine exhibit itself. Two alternatives logically presented themselves. I could try to get it cut down to a manageable size by removing 3/8 of its overall diameter (and lessening some of its weight) and setting it on the exhibit floor, or we could look into an outdoor setting. A single call removed the first option from my plate: although the exterior surface of the Sturgeon-class propeller was declassified, the interior remained under wraps. We could not cut through or into the blades without risking exposure of the blade innards to curious eyes, and my proposed workarounds to that particular dilemma fell on deaf ears.

An engineering colleague suggested setting it outdoors in a pit of sand over a sunken concrete base, somewhere out on the museum's lawn. However, when I ran this idea past our design director, he informed me that this would run into the purview of the Washington Commission of Fine Arts and/or the National Capitol Planning Commission, which review and approve anything outdoors on the Mall. However tempting, there simply wasn't time for this option, as the exhibit was scheduled to open in less than a year. Nevertheless, it was intriguing to imagine the reactions to such a proposal from committees who reviewed learned discourses on all aspects of public monuments and statuary on the Mall, and what they might have said about the artistic merits of the stern of a nuclear submarine! With both those options closed, it didn't look like there was enough time left to get a propeller, so I had to return to my original fallback plan. Right around this time, my research suffered two more setbacks.

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The author's sketch-proposing to cut down a fast attack's propeller in order to make it fit into the exhibit-met with less than wild enthusiasm. Sketch by the author.

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