The USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the largest in the U.S. fleet, will be deactivated after its mission to the Middle East.
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NORFOLK -- When the makers of Top Gun were filming on board the USS Enterprise, they donated a set of black fuzzy dice to liven up the ship's otherwise drab interior.
A quarter-century later, the dice still will be dangling inside the tower of "the Big E" as the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sets sail on its final voyage Sunday.
The trinket is a reminder of the ship's storied 50-year history that includes action in several wars, a prominent role in the Cuban missile crisis, and serving as a spotter ship for John Glenn's historic orbit of the Earth.
"To serve on this ship, certainly in this capacity, you certainly have to be a student of the ship's history," said Rear Adm. Walter Carter, commander of the Enterprise strike group. "Fifty years of service, in our nation's history, we've never had a warship in service that long."
The Enterprise is the longest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet.
It is also the oldest, a distinction that brings pride as well as headaches for the more than 4,000 crew members.
The ship is effectively a small city that frequently needs repairs because of its age.
It was designed to last 25 years, but a major overhaul in 1979 and other improvements have extended its life.
The ship largely looks like any other carrier on the inside and has modern amenities such as gyms, a coffee shop, and a television station with dozens of channels. It even produces its own daily newspaper while at sea.
But even the best-maintained ship faces challenges as it ages.
Capt. William Hamilton, the ship's commanding officer, acknowledged that all aircraft carriers have problems they're supposed to anticipate, but he said the Enterprise is more likely to have "unknown unknowns" than newer ships.
The problems are so notorious that sailors reporting to work aboard the Enterprise are often given joking condolences by their colleagues on shore and on other ships.
"Life is hard on Enterprise," Captain Hamilton said. "But when they leave here, they leave knowing if they can do this, they can do anything."
The Enterprise is heading to the Middle East on its seven-month deployment.
Following its return to Virginia in the fall, tens of thousands are expected to be on hand for a deactivation ceremony Dec. 1.