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

The Big Plan: orbit a constellation of 20 Alpha-equipped satellites, each designed to destroy an enemy missile from as far away as 2,500 miles in less than 10 seconds. Each space-based laser would have a total "lasing time" of between 200 and 500 seconds, about enough to destroy some 100 missiles. If the program reaches the full-scale stage, a demonstrator prototype three times the size of the Hubble Space Telescope and weighing 40 tons would be launched atop a Titan-4 rocket sometime between 2005 and 2008.


Do defense experts really think Alpha will fly? Publicly, of course, they say they do, and they have millions of dollars in good-faith taxpayer money to prove their sincerity.

But others say Alpha is a gift—not to the people of the United States of America, but to TRW itself.

John Pike is a space-policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists and a frequent critic of missile-defense programs. He has studied the Pentagon-sponsored consolidation of the defense industry—watched as companies merge and purge to stay competitive in the post Cold War world. There's simply not as much work to go around; the war-fighting business is a bit flat. TRW has been especially hard-hit, Pike says, and so Congress, taking "heed of TRW's state," has made "a variety of adjustments in Pentagon plans to the company's benefit." Among these "adjustments" was Congress' decision "to increase funding for the company's Alpha chemical laser, which has consumed more than a billion dollars over nearly two decades and produced only a few seconds of laser light."


CTS can be a dangerous place, but not for the reasons you might think. Those few seconds of laser light haven't even scalded anyone's fingers, much less punched a hole in a fast-moving target with a warhead on top. On Jan. 7, 1988, during a test of the Alpha laser in the big dome, a worker opened a valve at the wrong time and started a brief but intense fire in the building's exhaust piping. No one was injured. But with the main vacuum chamber contaminated by smoke and debris, officials said it was impossible to go on to the final experiment in which the laser beam itself would be produced and tested in space-like conditions.

On Sept. 19, 1990, TRW mechanic and Costa Mesa resident Addy Rijkschroeff, 58, died at CTS in a very retro-industrial way, crushed under a toppled forklift.

On Oct. 8, 1998, San Juan Capistrano resident Guy Roberts, 41, died while washing walls at CTS when he fell 25 feet after touching a live electric bar that supplies power to an overhead crane.

And the site has seen its share of just plain oddness:

On Dec. 16, 1989, 10 Soviet Union scientists flew into the U.S. Marine Corps base at El Toro and then rode south to San Clemente to visit the sensitive TRW facility for an unprecedented briefing on the controversial space-based defense program.

On Sept. 10, 1993, after five deer mice trapped near CTS were found infected with the deadly hantavirus, federal scientists from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dressed in biohazard suits conducted a survey of the nearby rodent population. No trace of the disease was found in the 15 other mice trapped by the scientists.

The Orange County Fire Authority ranks CTS as one of a score of county "target hazards" because of the strange brew of exotic chemicals (arsenic, asbestos, benzene, formaldehyde, monomethylhydrazine and more) present there. But fire officials say CTS adheres carefully to the county's strict reporting and storage regulations.

"They've been extremely cooperative in developing a risk-management plan," says Captain Scott Brown. "They maintain an on-site hazardous-materials response team and a fire response team, keep a 24-hour access line, and notify us about testing. We've had no documented trouble there, and they've met the letter of the law on chemical storage."


For 230 years, locals have known Christianitos Canyon as the place where the white man first started officially burying California's native people. Spanish soldiers and their Native American assistants marched into the canyon and discovered two sick children. Today, the official opinion is that the illness was European in origin, that the bacteria had beaten the soldiers north and begun its brutal campaign against the native population. The soldiers ministered to the dying children, baptized and soon buried the little Christians. Today, though, the canyon deserves a different reputation for a different story, one that's part of the saga of the Valley of the Weird, where TRW trumps all other weirdness.

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