This has been an eventful month for the most famous ship name in the world -- the USS Enterprise. On December 1, the U.S. Navy retired the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) -- the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier -- after a remarkable 51 years of service. At the same time, the Navy announced that the third Ford-class supercarrier (CVN-80), due to be completed around 2025, will be named Enterprise. And, not to be outdone, the producers of Star Trek Into Darkness, the next Star Trek movie, released a trailer previewing the film that is set to hit the big screen in May.
So how will the new supercarrier Enterprise (CVN-80) compare to the starship Enterprise (NCC- 1701)? Foriegn Policy put the question to naval analyst, former U.S. Naval War College professor, and science-fiction fan Chris Weuve:
The Enterprise is the name of the most famous ship in science fiction. And it was also one of the most famous names in U.S. Navy history, even before Star Trek. Why did the Navy name the third Ford-class supercarrier the Enterprise?
Well, as you said, it's one of the most famous names -- the most famous name, really -- in U.S. Navy history. As a naval vessel in American service, the name goes back to a sloop-of-war the Continental Navy captured from the British in 1775 by not-yet-turncoat Benedict Arnold. That vessel was burned to prevent capture, and the name went to another Continental Navy sailing ship. The Continental Navy became the U.S. Navy, which has had an additional six warships named Enterprise, three sailing ships (the last decommissioned for good in the early 1900s), a motor patrol boat which served during the First World War, and two aircraft carriers. Both carriers had distinguished and record-breaking careers, the first (CV-6) in World War II, the second (CVN-65) as the world's first nuclear-powered carrier. So, I think there is ample incentive for the Navy to pick Enterprise as the name for the new CVN-80. Of course, I'm sure the Navy received a few letters from Trek fans, just as NASA did when the space shuttle program was gearing up.
For Starfleet, by the way, the history of the name is obviously a little more dicey. We have seen evidence of at least 13 starships named Enterprise, not including alternate timelines or mirror universes. As Yoda said, "Always in motion is the future" -- in this case because of new shows and movies adding to the mythos.
A 23rd-century starship obviously has far more advanced technology than a 21st-century aircraft carrier. But in what other ways are the vessels dissimilar?
Setting aside the obvious difference of a real surface ship versus a fictional starship, the two vessels are more different than alike in terms of purpose, crew, and operation. The aircraft carrier is a warship; its primary function is to provide offensive and defensive airpower, and to serve as a command-and-control node for a carrier strike group. It does other things, too, but those are the two main functions, and the only ones for which it was designed. Other than its aircraft, a carrier's weapons are short-range and purely defensive, so a carrier does not travel alone, but in a carrier strike group with escorts that provide it with defense against submarines and air attack. This carrier strike group is designed to operate with a heavy logistics tail providing it with fuel for thirsty airplanes, food, and munitions, which are generally delivered twice a week. Plus, the carrier gets support from ashore: intelligence reports from the Office of Naval Intelligence, weather reports, communications capabilities through satellites, Air Force tankers for its air wing, and so on.
The various incarnations of the starship Enterprise are different in many ways, starting with the fact that they are primarily exploration vessels. They have a military mission, yes, but it's not really the primary mission. They are solo performers, designed to operate independently most of the time. They are capable of sustained long-duration operations with only minimal resupply. When they do have to fight, their weapons are guns fired from the ship itself. All in all, while Starfleet's finest ships are highly sophisticated pieces of technology, they operate more like sailing vessels, whereas aircraft carriers are definitely machine-age devices.
As for similarities, Captain Kirk's Enterprise was about the same length as the aircraft carrier, although the crew was less than a tenth as big. The new carrier will be a few tens of feet shorter than CVN-65, but with a greater displacement; the original CVN was designed to be a greyhound, long and lean. CVN-80's crew will be almost exactly 10 times that of Kirk's starship.