The Death Ray

Welcome to South Orange County, home of uranium 238, illegal immigrants, rare trout, and the most powerful military laser in the world


TRW has always been interested in space. The CTS brain trust made its reputation in the 1960s by creating spacecraft and rocket-propulsion systems that played a key role in JFK's moon mission. TRW built the world's first "variable-thrust" rocket engine, which became the Apollo lunar module descent engine that gently lowered Neil Armstrong et al., the last 10 miles to the moon's surface. The lunar module descent engine, which landed astronauts on the moon six times between 1969 and 1974, also provided deliverance for the benighted crew of Apollo 13 in 1970.

But in the early 1970s, Americans lost faith in just about every public venture: its presidents, their wars, their calls to land men on distant planets. Funding for the Apollo program dried up, and with it went CTS jobs. But there were still the Russians. TRW shifted quickly; began emphasizing CTS as a "cradle for emerging defense technologies"; and used the site to develop and test satellite rocket engines, satellite communications antennas and "directed energy weapons"—what you and I call lasers.

Ronald Reagan revived CTS in the 1980s with his infamous, scandalous $50 billion corporate-welfare program for the military-industrial complex—the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. Star Wars, after George Lucas' popular film. Reagan wanted Star Wars to help stop intercontinental ballistic missiles before they got anywhere near American soil. The plan involved using satellites to direct laser beams at enemy missiles as they re-entered Earth's atmosphere.

That project ultimately died a death that was too gentle for its enemies—it simply ran out of cash and lies. In 1993, amid government reports about rigged tests and falsified data, Star Wars was effectively mothballed. But its death was not complete. By the early 1990s, SDI had become a Hydra, spinning off son-of-Star Wars programs for everybody with credentials and cash: the U.S. Army (a ground-based Tactical High Energy Laser), the U.S. Air Force (a laser carried aboard a modified Boeing 747), the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization's space-based laser. As in the 1970s, CTS was once again saved from history. This time, the savior was laser technology.


The laser is built on one of the oldest technological dreams; along with fire, it is practically a symbol of our enlightenment as a species, epitomized in Archimedes' idea to attack the Roman fleet at Syracuse by using mirrors and lenses to focus burning solar rays on ships at sea. More recently, science fiction's preoccupation with burning death rays added modern gloss to the ancient dream. H.G. Wells' novel War of the Worlds featured deadly heat beams wielded by Martian invaders. Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi propelled the idea into the modern era.

Undaunted by SDI's failure, missile-defense advocates retain an almost religious belief in the efficacy of the laser-light beam as an instrument of vengeance and deliverance. It fits so nicely with other popular images of the divine: Zeusian lightning bolts, Tyndall sunbeams bursting through ragged clouds, crepuscular rays turning the sky a brilliant red-orange. With our space-based lasers, the thinking goes, we shall share the sidereal majesty of the bejeweled night sky with all the other brilliant stars as we hope to burn a big hole in a really bad dream.

So the laser didn't die, in part because it is part of ourselves—and sure, also because its immortality serves the interests of the huge corporations that work on lasers.

Here's what scientists in those companies figured: Star Wars didn't fail because lasers won't work in war. Star Wars failed because of politics because Reagan especially was too easily influenced by a single scientist: Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb and one of Stanley Kubrick's models for Dr. Strangelove. Teller's grip on the president forced Star Wars researchers down the path toward an unworkable laser—the atomic-powered x-ray.

The fundamental fraud of the x-ray was first exposed by New York Times science writer William J. Broad in his 1992 book Teller's War: The Top-Secret Story Behind the Star Wars Deception. According to Teller, each laser would be the result of a modest atomic blast inside the orbiting satellite. But such lasers didn't work, a fact that cost American taxpayers at least $1.8 billion before more honest and sensible scientists finally prevailed.

Crawling from the Stars Wars wreckage, the Department of Defense turned to TRW, Lockheed and Martin Marietta for something else the companies' researchers had already successfully tested: lasers that burn old-fashioned rocket fuel to produce the death beam.


The turnaround began in March 1996, when the House and Senate Republican leadership introduced something called the Defend America Act of 1996. The stated purpose of this act was to establish a U.S. policy for the deployment of a national missile defense system. Among other findings, the bills asserted that the threat of ballistic-missile proliferation to the United States was "significant and growing." (As a curious footnote, Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman from Huntington Beach, later argued that an anti-ballistic-missile system would allow the U.S. to knock out asteroids on a collision course with the Earth, thereby saving the world; his scenario closely paralleled the plots of Deep Impactand Armageddon, a couple of then-popular movies.)

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