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

Art by Mark DanceyTHE VALLEY OF THE WEIRD

The best view of Orange County's Valley of the Weird is at the topmost point of Rancho San Clemente Ridgeline Trail, a dirt-path spine along a gully-cut plateau at San Clemente's summit, 888 feet above sea level. From here, you can see most of the Valley of the Weird, and what you can't see—like the artillery range at Camp Pendleton emitting the thumpa-wumpa, thoonka-whoonka of an 8-ton howitzer—you can hear.

The valley is just a few square miles at the southeast edge of San Clemente on the Orange County/San Diego County border. It's a small area, a crack in space, a geopolitical black hole where the 89.3 FM radio signal fades and leaks into 89.5 FM amid the hiss and buzz of distant lightning strikes and exploding galaxies.

It's small but includes the kind of distilled weirdness you'd swear needs a continent-wide canvas.

In addition to your howitzer thunder, you've got every radioactive U-235 pellet ever used at the 32-year-old San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (known rarely by its felicitous acronym, SONGS) cooling in concrete storage pools and steel casks while awaiting removal to some distant and as-yet-unbuilt U.S. government waste site. The plant itself is famous for its eternally perky D-cup concrete-and-steel containment domes, breast-like in so Hollywood a way that they've appeared as visual gags in Leslie Nielsen movies. Nearby, you've got border cops who subject American citizens to random inspections of their persons and property at a station 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, yellow signs of a madre and her niƱos running in silhouetted panic along the roadside, and the palatial former estate of Richard M. Nixon.

You've also got paradisiacal beauty, of course—acres of lush, vine-ripe tomatoes, a beach for nude sunbathers, and the world's most perfect breakers near Trestles Beach ("the Yosemite of Surfing," according to the Surfrider Foundation). There's even the San Mateo River, a waterway of rare steelhead trout—though the Marines plan to build base housing around the trout's river home, the county is eager to blast a new toll road (the 241) through the adjacent state park, and builders have bonneted the wild country with burned-earth terra-cotta-tiled homes.

Oh, and there's a secret death ray.

BUBBLE GUN

Standing atop Rancho San Clemente Ridgeline Trail, look north, and you'll see luminous white domes glistening brightly in the California sunshine on the ravine-creased hillsides of Christianitos Canyon. The bubble-top buildings belong to the TRW Capistrano Test Site (CTS), birthplace of Alpha, a $200 million megawatt-class space-based laser, the most powerful "beam weapon" in the U.S. military arsenal.

In the Valley of the Weird sideshow, CTS ranks as the real star. Located on San Clemente's northeast edge where Avenida Pico dead-ends into Christianitos Canyon at the county line, the site is used for large-scale testing of thrusters, rocket engines, propulsion systems and high-energy lasers like Alpha the Death Ray.

Neighborliness has led me to want to get to know as much as possible about CTS, which I first stumbled across when I moved to San Clemente in 1989. I've looked into the place because I can't deny the potential trouble—trousered ape, capital "T" kind of Trouble—that it represents for me and mine, since any hostile nation would almost certainly target its nukes at this very hot cool spot in the Valley of the Weird on the edge of my hometown.

But police, city officials, town newspaper—no San Clemente locals had much information about the place. A call to TRW yielded nothing, except the rather bizarre suggestion that officials would talk to me if I were "on assignment for Adweek or some more traditional aerospace publication that really speaks more to the industry." Because, you know, only industry people would be interested in the fact that a massive death ray is being aimed, fired and re-holstered in the hills of South County.

TRW operates CTS through its Space & Electronics Group, which is based in Redondo Beach. The defense contractor built the place in 1963 on 2,700 acres of what was then remote, almost inaccessible, unincorporated Orange County land leased from the Santa Margarita Co. For years after, CTS remained hidden in the canyon. Suburban sprawl has changed that. These days, you can see the place easily from a golf course, a baseball field and the 5 freeway. But TRW still runs the wide-ranging, mysterious, armed-guard-protected domain in top-secret mode. Don't even bother trying to find it on a map—unless it's this map: on Page A32 of the 1998 PacBell phone book customer guide, under "Nuclear Emergency Information," the Avenida Pico-Christianitos Road connection just above Camp Pendleton appears as something called a "Primary Evacuation Route." Incredibly, that route leads to the CTS guard gate and, beyond, to a private road.

A still-twitching reflex of our officially brain-dead Cold War, CTS looks as though someone had dropped a futuristic space park—designed by Terry Gilliam in a peculiar hybrid sci-fi lab/industrial smokestack factory theme with a killer chainlink-and-barbed-wire fence—smack in the middle of sun-dappled nowhere wilderness.

TRW calls the hemisphere-roofed structures "test stands," "radar domes" or "radomes." They are micro-environments for simulating outer space. Inside the domes, hardware like Alpha the Death Ray goes through trials by fire.

LASER SAVIOR

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.

DR. STRANGELOVE

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.

STAR WARS, THE SEQUEL

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.)

Today, serious missile threats do exist. However, the threats are principally short-range missiles (less than 1,000 kilometers) in regional conflict scenarios and from "rogue states" such as Iran, Iraq and Libya. North Korea is working on a missile with a 3,600-mile range, sufficient to reach Alaska and Hawaii. Iran has tested an intermediate-range Shahab 3 missile and may be only several years away from an intercontinental weapon. Despite these developments, the threat of a ballistic-missile attack on American soil is far remoter than that of an Oklahoma City terrorist act in which low-tech nuclear, chemical or biological weapons are deployed—a nightmare scenario against which missile defenses offer little protection.

But facts, as Reagan once misspoke, "are stupid things." The National Missile Defense program grew. In 1997, the United States and Russia agreed on a reinterpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, lifting prohibitions on any lasers and other advanced missile-defense systems in which the sensors and the kill mechanism were in different devices so that the weapon was not a single integrated unit. The Clinton administration has since approved funding the development and demonstration of Alpha, which it intends to lead to an operational constellation of half a dozen orbital battle stations by 2010.

On July 29, 1997, Congressman Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee for military construction, proudly announced details of the fiscal year 1998 National Security Appropriations Act, which included the following items: the Army's ground-based Tactical High Energy laser ($31.5 million in funding to complete the CTS test program), the Air Force's airborne laser ($157.1 million for the latest weaponry developed by TRW, Boeing and Lockheed Martin), and a space-based laser for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense system ($29 million to continue technology development at CTS).

In contrast to the political firestorms over SDI, the new laser programs have met with only muted reaction.

A FUTURE SO BRIGHT

CTS's fascination with lasers began when the space program crashed to Earth in the 1970s. TRW picked up a research grant from the Department of Defense to build the Baseline Demonstration Laser, the world's first high-energy chemical laser. Working for the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s, TRW built and tested the Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), a 2.2-megawatt deuterium fluoride chemical laser. But MIRACL suffered from very poor beam quality, which led to Alpha.

On Dec. 23, 1987, in the midst of the Star Wars debacle, TRW conducted the first "hot" test of Alpha at CTS, mixing hydrogen and fluorine gases to gauge their energy production. But the weapon wasn't fired until 1991. Then it was fired 12 more times through Sept. 18, 1996, when TRW successfully completed a five-second, full-duration, full-power test.

To make sure the devices will work in Earth orbit, researchers at CTS test the laser-weapons systems in the 50-foot test stand's space-like vacuum. The laser itself, suspended in the chamber cavity, takes up only a small part of the vault. The remainder of the structure is essentially a giant pump designed to simulate the vacuum of space by sucking air from the room. CTS engineers have connected tanks of gaseous fuel and exhaust pipes to the building. During test firings, clouds of steam trap chemical residue in the exhaust pipes before it can escape outside where we live.

The Alpha space-based laser's key components are the laser itself (which produces an invisible infrared beam about a foot in diameter) and the mirror/beam-control assembly that targets the missiles. To generate a laser beam, deuterium, nitrogen trifluoride and helium mix to produce fluorine, which burns with hydrogen in a mirrored chamber called an optical resonator. This creates "excited" hydrogen fluoride molecules. As these excited molecules return to a rest state, they emit photons. An optical resonator amplifies this cascade of photons, transforming them into a beam—a laser beam. A beam-control optical assembly uses special mirrors that enlarge and direct the beam to a single point far away.

The first combination laser-telescope test took place in early 1997. CTS still hasn't tested a functional weapon, but now they can point it straight.

Eventually, Alpha could go to heaven. It's designed to fit on huge aluminum battle stations riding like righteous, avenging archangels in near-Earth orbit 800 miles above the planet. The lasers promise to instantly obliterate any enemy intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles—a large number of fast-moving, distant, polished metal targets—climbing in boost phase to just above the Earth's atmosphere. The lasers can't hit the missiles on the ground because water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs infrared light rays. This means that before Alpha can work, the missiles must get up between 75 and 100 miles to the hard vacuum at the edge of the sky where the air's oxygen and nitrogen molecules disassociate into atoms.

Officially, writes William Broad, "the power of the beam is secret, with contractors saying only that it is hot enough to melt metal and that the intensity of energy at the core is several times greater than that of the surface of the sun." The sun's surface temperature is about 6,000 degrees—intermediate in the range of temperatures for stars, but sufficiently toasty to punch a hole in a rocket and instantly stamp it "Return to Sender."

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.

WARFARE WELFARE

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."

MINOR CONSTERNATIONS

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."

EPILOGUE

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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