It's the beginning of the end for the USS Enterprise. After 50 years of service, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is going dark at the same shipyard where it was first built.
Around 600 sailors and 1,200 employees at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia have been tasked with completing the "inactivation." As the Daily Press newspaper reports:
The Navy has never permanently shut down a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. A big part of the job — removing spent fuel from the ship's nuclear reactors — is nothing new. Newport News has accomplished several mid-life carrier overhauls, which involve defueling followed by refueling. That's part of getting the ship back in the fight, as the Navy likes to put it.
But the Enterprise has no more fighting days left, and shipyard workers now face a sad reality: The ship is literally going dark before their eyes.
"We've got probably half the ship or more that is uninhabited," said Dave Long, program director. "It's dark — no electricity, no ventilation. And we've actually sectioned it off with certain barriers and locks, very safely, so people can't get lost."
Long tells the story about a small group of Newport News workers who would hop on a plane to make repair calls to a different part of the globe. That's the kind of loyalty the Enterprise inspires, he said.
Today, some employees simply want to walk onto the ship one last time. Long is already fielding requests from employees to "ride" the ship for a few hundred yards when, in January, it will transfer from Pier 2 to Dry Dock 11.
The Enterprise will remain in Newport News until 2016. Eventually, it will be towed from Hampton Roads around the tip of South America to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash.
There it will be dismantled and recycled.
"If you didn't serve on Enterprise, you really haven't lived," said Rear Admiral Thomas More.
[Trivia Note: The USS Enterprise was on deployment during the filming of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, so the USS Ranger served as the stand-in "nuclear wessel."]