After nearly a half million miles at sea including a historic passage to the North Pole, the world's first atomic-powered submarine will be coming to rest at the Washington Navy Yard.

Secretary of the Navy Edward Hidalgo announced last week that the Nautilus, symbol of an era when American power and technological know-how were unquestioned and American optimism unbowed, will become a national monument moored in the old marine railway slip off the Anacostia River.

No one can say when the ship will be open to the public -- Congress must first approve and fund Hidalgo's proposal -- but its final voyage should come sometime next year when tugboats bring it to Washington from the San Francisco Bay shipyard where it is being decommissioned.

"She was a very special ship," recalls retired Navy captain William R. Anderson of Arlington, the skipper who took the Nautilus to the North Pole in 1958.

"What was extraordinary was that something as new and revolutionary as the Nautilus could work so well really from the first day it went to sea," says Anderson. "I'm pleased it's going to be here where thousands of people can see it."

The Nautilus could go farther and faster than any of its oil-powered predecessors. While World War II submarines had to surface after less than a day of underwater travel, the Nautilus could remain submerged and running for two weeks or more. It was the prototype of the nuclear fleet that today exceeds 100 submarines.

The Nautilus was launched on a cloudy January day in 1954 by the late Mamie Eisenhower with dozens of dignitaries in attendance. Legend has it that the sun broke through just before the ceremony and the ship's crew often repeated the slogan that "the sun always shines on the Nautilus."

For years, the ship was the pride of the fleet, a showpiece of American ingenuity.

"The demands on the ship were tremendous because she was the first," Anderson says. "In those first few years, half the U.S. Congress must have gone to sea."

Anderson recalls that it took the ship three attempts to reach the North Pole. The first two efforts were frustrated by too much ice clogging the narrow underwater passage that the submarine had to enter northwest of Alaska.

The third try was successful and the submarine spent four days submerged under the polar ice cap. But a plan to surface at the pole was frustrated by 35-foot-thick ice.

The Nautilus never fought a battle. But it reportedly was almost lost during an April 1959, exercise off the Newfoundland coast when the engine room was flooded and the ship forced to surface hurriedly.

It narrowly escaped again in November 1966, when it suffered minor damage in a submerged collision with the aircraft carrier Essex about 350 mile off the coast of North Carolina.

The adventures have been less frequent in recent years but the submarine was still considered seaworthy.

"She's still a very viable warship," Cmdr. Richard A. Riddell, the sub's last skipper, said in a recent interview. "We can operate almost as well as the latest submarines.

"The problem is getting parts. Most of the original manufacturers have gone out of business and a part that originally cost $50 may now cost $5,000, take months to get and have to be hand-made. It just isn't cost-effective to maintain her anymore."

The Navy's announcement last year that it would retire the Nautilus triggered a heated battle among groups from localities that felt they had a claim to the submarine.

Chief among them was Groton, Conn., where the ship was launched and where its home port was located for its 25 years of service. Residents and politicians had wanted the ship to be part of a naval museum on the Thames River there. Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, also tried to get the Nautilus.

But the Navy said Hidalgo had Washington was the best site because of "the national character of the ship." The Navy estimated it will cost $7.6 million to moor the Nautilus here, prepare it for visitors and convert an adjacent building into a small museum.

"She's a magnificent ship and she ought to be in the nation's capital," says Edward Beach, the former Navy submarine skipper and novelist. "They ought to save it -- there are a lot of other ships that they should have saved but didn't."