The starship Enterprise has changed from the original 1960s vessel to the ship in the 2009 movie -- just as the U.S. Navy's Enterprise began as an 18th century sailing ship and will now be a nuclear-powered supercarrier. What does this say about the evolution of naval technology in both science fiction and real life?
I think it says a couple of things. For technology in general, Star Trek has always influenced the real world, and in turn has been influenced by it. In the original Star Trek series, we see the precursors of flip phones and wireless earpieces and handheld computers. All devices we had seen in science fiction before, more or less, but Star Trek was in a unique position to influence a generation of engineers who were actually going to build those devices. The real world influenced Star Trek, too. What seemed futuristic in 1965 is at best quaint today, so when Star Trek: Enterprise hit the airwaves in 2001, the producers were faced with the difficult task of making the old Enterprise impressive without overshadowing her distinguished-but-outdated descendent.
For naval technology, I would suggest that both the CVNs and the starships demonstrate the importance of modularity. A lot is made over the various modular warship designs, such as the German MEKO, the Danish StanFlex, and the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), but the first truly modular warship design was the aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier's entire weapons complement, with the exception of some of the point defense weapons, is its airplanes. Need to upgrade? Fly the old airplanes off, and fly some new airplanes on. The five generations of aircraft that CVN-65 operated is part of the reason why the recently retired Enterprise lasted so long. You can't exactly fly the electronics of an aircraft carrier off the ship, but they get replaced fairly regularly, too. I had a chance to visit the aircraft carriers John C. Stennis in 1999 and 2004, and the Carl Vinson in 2001 and 2003. It was amazing how much changed in the Combat Direction Center and in the Tactical Flag Command Center on each ship between my trips.
In Star Trek, the modularity is less obvious but it's there. Ever wonder why the bridge of the Enterprise kept changing for each movie? We all know the real reason is that they built a new set each time, but the explanation given by the geeks working on the show -- my heroes Rick Sternbach, Mike Okuda, Andrew Probert, and the rest -- is that it may be the same ship, but it's a different bridge. The bridge is just a module that plugs into the top of the saucer section. And by the time we get to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the control panels are all user-programmable displays.
The U.S. Navy hasn't quite gotten there with the software, or with command space modules, although they are trying hard to do this with the LCS. But in other ways, a modern aircraft carrier is actually more sophisticated than anything we have seen on Star Trek. As I said above, a CVN isn't just an airport -- it's the hub of a sophisticated command and control network, a place where sensor and intelligence data from a variety of warfare domains is fused into an operational picture covering thousands of square miles, maintaining situational awareness of hundreds of entities that could be friendly, hostile, neutral, or unknown. The real limit in this case is the operators, not the equipment. We never really see anything like that in Star Trek.
Finally, the long history of both sets of Enterprises says something about the importance of tradition. By naming CVN-80 the Enterprise, the Navy is linking its story to the story of all the ships that bore the name previously. And, for the same reason, it means something that NCC-1701-E is the Enterprise as well. In both cases we have a new ship, new technology, new story, but the old story is important, too.
And, for Star Trek fans, that name links the U.S. Navy's story to Starfleet's story as well. In Star Trek IV, when the starship crew needed to visit a nuclear carrier, it meant something to them -- and to us -- that it was the Enterprise.
As you said, the starship Enterprise is primarily an exploration vessel while the aircraft carrier Enterprise is a warship. Does that conflict with Star Trek's optimistic vision of the future of humanity? Would Gene Roddenberry have approved?
Arguably, Roddenberry demonstrated he did approve when he chose to name his starship after the warship. As a World War II vet, I'm sure he knew that CV-6 was the most decorated ship in the history of the Navy, and the then-new nuclear carrier was designed for the front lines of the Cold War. NCC-1701, the starship Enterprise was listed as a heavy cruiser from day one, although later incarnations were dubbed "Explorers."
But it's also clear that Roddenberry didn't view Starfleet as a traditional military. Starfleet is as much about exploration and diplomacy as it is about warfare, all the phasers and naval ranks and whatnot notwithstanding. Now, history is replete with examples of the militaries engaged in exploration and diplomacy, up to and including the diplomatic responsibilities that the commander of a U.S. Combatant Command has. But in Star Trek they send Starfleet in first, to make the initial contact, to survey and the like. I don't recall seeing it in an official source, but I wonder how far down the page of Starfleet's mission statement do you have to read to find "defend the Federation." All in all, Starfleet isn't really like any one U.S. service -- it's a combination of the technical prowess of the Air Force, the mission set of the State Department and the National Geographic Society, and the ethos of the Coast Guard, all within the trappings of the U.S. Navy.
If Captain Kirk were to travel in time and somehow take command of the carrier Enterprise, would it be a comfortable fit? How about a U.S. Navy carrier commander in the captain's chair of the starship Enterprise?
Kirk strikes me as a bit impulsive for command of a CVN. As for the other way, one thing I find interesting in talking about Star Trek with naval officers is that when the subject turns to which character from Star Trek would best fit in the USN, the name that always comes up is Edward Jellico, the character played by Ronnie Cox in the Next Generation episodes "Chain of Command, Part I" and "Chain of Command, Part II." Most Star Trek fans say, "What a jerk," and there's some truth to that, but most of it is just reminding the ship's officers to focus on their responsibilities. He's direct and no-nonsense; he's in charge, it's his responsibility, and he wants his officers to remember that. Not the usual method for Starfleet, but you see it a lot in the U.S. Navy.