Navy’s newest nuclear sub commissioned

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The Virginia-class attack submarine costs $2.3 billion

By The Staff

NORFOLK, Va. — The Navy accepted its newest nuclear-powered submarine on Saturday with the commissioning of the USS New Mexico, a 377-foot, technology laden ship that was delivered months ahead of schedule.

The $2.3 billion Virginia-class attack submarine was commissioned before its crew of 134 officers and enlisted men, family and shipbuilders at Naval Station Norfolk. The streamlined black sub was moored at expansive pier 14, normally reserved for one of the base’s five nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

The ship’s sponsor was Cindy Giambastiani, wife of retired Adm. Edmund Giambastiani and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She called out “bring her to life,” sending the crew scrambling to the deck of the ship, a commission tradition.

Adm. Kirkland Donald, director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, delivered the principal address on a red, white and blue-bedecked podium.

The ship was built at the nearby Northrop Grumman Shipyard in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat. It was delivered to the Navy four months early.

Cmdr. Mark A. Prokopius, a native of Seven Hills, Ohio, worked for months with shipbuilders to fine tune the sub during a series of sea trials and pronounced the ship a “fine quality product and ready to go to sea and put in harm’s way.”

“I’m excited to represent the great state of New Mexico, and I’m sure they’re excited for us,” Prokopius said during an interview before Saturday’s commissioning.

The ship has a small nod to its landlocked namesake: small privacy curtains between crew bunks are designed Native American prints.

“Commander Prokopius — on behalf of the men and women of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, I offer my congratulations and our assurance that your ship is ready and fit for duty,” said Matt Mulherin, vice president of the Newport News shipyard.

The 7,800-ton ship can dive to depths greater than 800 feet, operate at speeds topping 25 knots and remain submerged for three months. Its periscope — actually cameras — deliver images in black-and-white, color and infrared.

A small group of the hundreds who helped build the sub at Newport News stopped before the commissioning to admire their work.

“This is what the whole team worked for, giving the Navy a good product, seeing the Navy happy,” said Wenzel Soliday, construction supervisor. He was to miss the commissioning to begin work on a new ship contract.

“It’s amazing,” Justin Byrum, program performance manager, said as he stood on the pier gazing at the sub’s mast — a fin that rises from the deck of the sub and contains all the communication masts. “A sense of pride doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s such a feeling of awe and accomplishment.”

The interior of the sub is a study in no wasted space for complex electronics and bundles of cables; impossibly narrow aisles connect a warren of sleeping quarters and meeting rooms. An open area normally stacked with torpedoes is called the “dance floor” because of its relative spaciousness. The nuclear propulsion unit of the New Mexico is strictly off limits to visitors.

Lt. Beau Wielkoscewski, a weapons officer from Colorado Springs, Colo., loves the submarine service and makes do with what he can on long deployments.

“We have the ability to see the sun through the periscope and see the outside world,” he said. “You have books. You’re studying.

“Boredom is your worst enemy onboard a submarine, so we try to keep the guys engaged so they didn’t have as much time to think about their missing loved ones and family.”

Still, said electronics technician Derrick Echols of the Bronx, the close quarters can be tough. “After a couple of weeks, we get a little cranky,” he said.

The New Mexico ultimately will be home-ported in Groton, Conn.