The Enterprise is, almost without question, the most legendary starship in pop culture. But the name is equally legendary in military circles. Eight naval vessels have born the name Enterprise and served with distinction. During World War II the seventh Enterprise was one of the first to respond after Pearl Harbor and one of only three US carriers to survive the entire war. Enterprise VII became the most decorated ship in naval history, in the process. Now the eighth and last of them, the 50 year old aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, is setting sail on her final voyage.
This Enterprise was the first ever nuclear powered aircraft carrier constructed and put into operation by the United States Navy in 1961. She’s still the longest naval vessel in the entire world. Measuring 1,123ft and weighing in at 93,284 tons, Enterprise is home to more than 4,000 sailors. She’s a floating city, with 8 nuclear reactors and her own newspaper.
The ship should be particularly familiar to sci-fi fans. Not just for the name she shares with Captain Kirk’s starship, but for her appearance in Star Trek IV: The Voyage home where Enterprise is the ship Chekov ends up infiltrating in his search through modern day Earth for a “nuclear wessel” (though that case another ship ended up doubling for the real Enterprise). She’s been in other movies too, most notably Top Gun, in which Enterprise is the carrier Tom Cruise stages from.
But she’s old. Really old. In fact she’s now the oldest ship in the United States navy (outside of the floating, three-masted, wooden sailing ship museum USS Constitution). Enterprise was only intended to serve for 25 years. They’ve kept her going with refits and constant repairs. Beloved though she is, living on her has become a constant trial where her crew must expect anything and everything to break down and go wrong at any moment.
This week the Enterprise was deployed on her 22nd mission and set sail for the Middle East on a seven-month deployment. When she returns to Naval Station Norfolk Virginia, on December 1 President Obama will be on hand for a decommissioning ceremony and then they’ll start dismantling her. It’ll take until 2015 before they’ve finished draining the ship’s dangerous nuclear reactors, and then because the process will render her unsound, the AP says they’ll be forced to cut Enterprise up for scrap instead of turning the ship into the museum it probably deserves to be.
It seems unlikely this will be the last ship called Enterprise.