The first pieces of the U.S. Navy’s newest class of aircraft carrier—meant to be the cornerstone of American military sea power over the next hundred years—lie in the open air of a shipyard in Virginia. A misting rain is falling on the jumbled field of steel bulkheads, stacks of pipe and 200-ton sections of hull. It’s as if some gargantuan child broke apart his model ship and scattered the pieces on the ground.
But Northrop Grumman’s staff at the Newport News shipyard know where every part is located—and the exact order in which each piece must be connected. Building an aircraft carrier is like putting together a 3D jigsaw puzzle, for years on end. Engineers have been designing some of the pieces since 2000; the job won’t be finished until 2015.