Why is Michelle Obama visiting RI today?

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama is traveling to Rhode Island on Monday to participate in a keel-laying ceremony for a new submarine, the future USS Illinois. Here are details about the ceremony and the submarine:

What is a keel-laying ceremony?
The ceremony marks the beginning of a ship’s construction. Modern submarines do not have a traditional keel that runs the length of the ship because they are built in modules. Construction begins well before the ceremony. Since there is no keel to lay at Electric Boat’s Quonset Point facility, Michelle Obama will write her initials on a metal plate, then a welder will inscribe them. The plate will later be mounted on the submarine. Elected officials, the shipbuilders and Navy leaders will participate.

Why is Michelle Obama involved?
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus named the first lady as the submarine’s sponsor. She is from Illinois and supports military families. Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, the secretary’s spokeswoman, said it was a natural selection because Obama embodies “the qualities we hold dear in the military” — a sense of service and selflessness.

What is a ship sponsor?
Most modern U.S. Navy ships have female sponsors who christen the vessels. Ship christenings date back thousands of years in many cultures. Sailors sought divine protection for themselves and their craft. The first recorded christening of an American warship was the USS Constitution in Boston in 1797. The religious significance faded over the years, but the tradition remained. It is a way of bringing today’s Navy in touch with the past, said Kevin Hurst, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

When a ship is named after a person, a female relative is usually asked to be the sponsor. Public officials and wives of senior naval officers serve as sponsors for many of the ships named after places. Both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have sponsored submarines. It is said that the sponsor’s spirit and presence guides the ship throughout its life.

Why is the submarine called The Illinois?
Illinois is home to the Navy command where every enlisted sailor begins serving. The Secretary of the Navy chose the submarine as the second ship to bear the state’s name. Most modern submarines are named after cities and states. Attack submarines were named after sea creatures into the mid-1970s, with a few exceptions. Naval officials who wanted to drum up support across the nation for the submarine fleet changed this because, as Navy lore goes, fish don’t vote.

What should I know about the submarine?
The Illinois, SSN 786, is the 13th member in the Virginia class of attack submarines built by Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. It is expected to cost about $2.7 billion and be delivered to the Navy in August 2016. The crew is now training in Groton, Connecticut, on how to operate the systems on their new submarine. Three of the sailors in the 100-man crew are from Illinois. Forty other workers will arrive over the next two months to complete the crew.

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