During the test mission at the Bonneville Flats, Universe carried a skeleton crew of 51. Adrienne Kuwano was serving as the ship's captain, Lieutenant Commander Chernin was the ship's chief engineer, and Lieutenant Seaver was the ship's communications officer.
After the ship reached hyperwarp one, it exploded resulting in a loss of all hands. The USS Ad Astra, escorting the Universe, was also severely damaged by the explosion.
Unfortunately, the Romulan flagship IRW Tomed witnessed this explosion and mistook it for the test of a Starfleet metaweapon. This would later precipitate the Tomed Incident, which would include the Federation's own flagship, the starship USS Enterprise-B. (TLE novel: Serpents Among the Ruins)
- In truth, no one was killed aboard the Universe as it was part of a greater plot formed by Captain John Harriman with the help of Starfleet Intelligence. Hyperwarp was merely a reprisal of the already failed Transwarp technology, except this time some of the energy was redirected through a Romulan cloaking device in order to create a different energy signature. It was widely accepted that neither transwarp nor hyperwarp would ever work the way Starfleet engineers had been going about it. The Universe was a pre-existing prototype that this technology was installed onto in order to further this ruse. The ship was set to autopilot and it's official crew manifest contained names of officers killed during classified missions. Though the Romulans took the explosion as Universe to be a sign of metaweapon testing instead of the first strike capability Harriman assumed that they would, the end result was largely the same.
The Universe had a slightly unorthodox design, though many of the structures were similar to existing starships. The saucer section was a long narrow ellipse, with no raise at the middle, that connected directly to the secondary hull, another long narrow ellipse. Two wide thin warp nacelles extended from the secondary hull. The ship as a whole had a very wide beam and shallow depth. (TLE novel: Serpents Among the Ruins)