NORFOLK, Va. — 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 will still be dangling inside the tower of "the Big E" as the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sets sail on its final voyage today.
The trinket is a reminder of the ship's storied 50-year history, which 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.
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 plenty of headaches for the ship's more than 4,000 crew members. The ship is effectively a small city that frequently needs repairs because of its age. It was originally designed to last 25 years, but a major overhaul in 1979 and other improvements extended its life.
Still, even the best-maintained ship faces challenges as it ages.
"It's kind of like when you get older and you know it's harder to get out of the bed in the morning. It takes you a couple hours to kind of really get up and then you're fine. Well, it's the same sort of thing here with Enterprise," Capt. William Hamilton, the ship's commanding officer, said days before the ship was set to deploy from Naval Station Norfolk.
The Enterprise is heading to the Middle East on a seven-month deployment, where it will be on standby in case of conflict with Iran or piracy threats off Somalia, among other things.
The deployment will be the ship's 22nd. Following its return to Virginia in the fall, tens of thousands are expected to be on hand for a deactivation ceremony Dec. 1 that President Barack Obama has been invited to attend.
Next summer, Enterprise will be towed to the shipyard where it was built in nearby Newport News so its nuclear fuel can be removed, a process that will take until 2015. What remains of the ship after that will then be taken to Washington state so it can be scrapped.