NEWPORT NEWS — Fifty years ago today the largest dry dock in the world filled with water from the James River, setting afloat the world's largest ship and first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
At 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, 1960, Mrs. William B. Franke, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, smashed a bottle of champagne across the bow of the USS Enterprise as the rushing seawater freed it from its last keel block.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh A. Burke told some 12,000 guests at the christening ceremony that the 1,101-foot Big E was "the largest ship ever built of any kind by any nation," containing the most powerful nuclear power plant ever constructed anywhere in the world.
Yard president William E. Blewett Jr. paid tribute to the thousands of workers who "labored with imagination, skill and pride to build a vessel worthy of its name."
Today, the Enterprise sits across the harbor at Naval Station Norfolk, preparing for two final, six-month deployments before it's decommissioned in 2012.
Neither the Navy nor the ship's crew has planned an event to celebrate the milestone, preferring to wait until Nov. 25, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Enterprise becoming an official member of the fleet.
Nonetheless, when the one-of-a-kind supercarrier was launched that Saturday five decades ago, it cemented Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. as the premier shipyard in the United States and positioned it as an indispensable asset even today.
"The Enterprise was seen not simply as the first of a new class of carriers, but a step in the transformation of the entire fleet," said James C. Bradford, a Navy historian and professor at Texas A&M University.
To build the ship, the yard had to alter its facilities and dry dock to be able to accommodate the largest vessel ever constructed. Further, it had to train and retain a cadre of highly experienced and skilled workers to undertake the most complex shipbuilding project ever attempted.
"The Enterprise got (Newport News) the facility and the trained workforce. There was simply no other yard capable of doing this kind of work," Bradford said. "Building the Enterprise really solidified Newport News Shipbuilding."
Since the launch of the Enterprise, all 12 of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers have been built in Newport News, bringing billions of dollars of contracts and decades worth of work for tens of thousands in Hampton Roads.
It remains the only yard capable of building and refueling the nation's fleet of aircraft carriers, a monopoly that's provided the yard with a steady and lucrative stream of business, a line of work that will likely continue for decades to come.
"The success of the USS Enterprise led to the development of the … Nimitz class carriers, 10 of which are presently in service, providing an all-nuclear carrier force for the U.S. Navy," said Tom Dougan, a spokesman for the Navy's nuclear reactors division.
After completing the 10th and final ship of the Nimitz class, the George H.W. Bush, in 2009, Newport News began building the first ship in a new class of carriers, the Gerald R. Ford.
With a scheduled 2015 commissioning, the Ford would likely be back in Newport News around 2040 for its mid-life overhaul.
It's all work for which the Big E paved the way.
The yard had built 17 carriers before the Enterprise, including ships in the Forrestal class and the Kitty Hawk class, but it wasn't the only player in the business. The New York Naval Shipyard and New York Shipbuilding Co. each were building flattops at the time.
But the Enterprise was a different animal. Outfitted with eight nuclear reactors that would give it virtually unlimited range and a horsepower of 200,000, it was a marvel of modern engineering.
The Navy needed the nation's best and brightest to design the experimental ship, which required 915 designers and more than 16,000 construction drawings — each done by hand with mechanical pencils and based on calculations done with sliderules.
Newport News Shipbuilding built the vessel between 1958 and 1961 at a cost of about $450 million (roughly $3.3 billion in today's dollars).
The Enterprise was so expensive it forced the Navy to make the next two carriers, the Newport News-built America and John F. Kennedy, conventionally powered, rather than nuclear as originally planned.
"It was such a radical departure for the Navy," said William J. Fowler Jr., a professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston. "The Enterprise marked an extraordinary leap forward in the Navy's ability to project power around the world."
After decades of service that included dispatches to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Southeast Asia to support the war in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf to support the war in Iraq, the Enterprise has proved its worth many times over, Fowler said.
"Fifty years has demonstrated the wisdom of building capital ships with nuclear power," he said. "For power projection alone, it's of very valuable assistance. Even today, the Enterprise stands as a symbol of our capacity to innovate and our capacity to do great things as a nation."
The Navy has plowed billions into keeping the matriarch of the fleet in service, a majority of which has funneled into Newport News.
The Enterprise has spent several years in the local yard for maintenance projects, a fact that spawned an oft-repeated saying on the waterfront: "There are two kinds of people who work here: Those who have worked on the Enterprise, and those who will."
In its final tuneup completed this spring, the Navy spent $662 million to prepare the Enterprise for two final deployments.
When it came out of the yard for sea trials, the oldest ship in the U.S. Fleet was "just as capable and effective" as any other commissioned aircraft carrier, said Matt Vincent, the aircraft carrier sea trials coordinator for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Newport News shipyard.
Vincent, who served aboard the Enterprise in the mid-1990s as a Navy Lt. j.g., credited the carrier's longevity to the care that went into designing the ship and endless restoration work and upkeep by the shipyard and the ship's varied crews.
"When you step aboard, you can almost feel the history of the ship," said Vincent, who noted he was born 16 days before the Enterprise was commissioned. "After all those years, she hasn't lost a step."
The Navy's plans call for the Enterprise to be decommissioned in November 2012. Following that ceremony, it will come back to Newport News a final time to be dismantled.