Star Wars, the movie appeared in May, 1977, and almost immediately became an enduring classic, the second highest-grossing film in history, behind only Gone With the Wind. Today, it is an enduring part of our culture.
But there was something else called Star Wars, too, once upon a time in this galaxy -- something that cost the taxpayers far more than all tickets ever bought to that movie, and which did nothing except threaten to destabilize world peace.
You may have long since forgotten that Star Wars, or may never have heard of it -- but know about it, you should.
Here, in a nutshell, is what happened. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan got it into his head that it would be possible to build a system to shoot down any incoming missiles from space, rendering the United States safe from nuclear attack, a system officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). But Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the media quickly dubbed it ‘Star Wars.”
President Reagan really thought it would be possible to create a space-based shield that would render nuclear missiles obsolete. He even talked of making the technology available to the Soviet Union when it was ready.
Most scientists thought building such a system would be astronomically expensive and essentially impossible. Worse, there was a real threat SDI might actually cause, rather than prevent, nuclear war. If the Soviets thought we might be immune to attack, they might fear we would then annihilate them.
What if they, fearing total destruction, were to launch a surprise attack before SDI was ready? Reagan was undeterred. His interest in anti-ballistic missile technology dated back to 1967 when, as a new governor of California, he paid a visit to physicist Edward Teller, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Reagan was very taken by Teller’s briefing on directed-energy weapons (DEWs), such as lasers and microwaves, which he argued could potentially defend against a nuclear attack. According to George Shultz, Secretary of State during Reagan’s presidency, that meeting was “the first gleam in Ronald Reagan’s eye of what later became the Strategic Defense Initiative.”
Though most of the scientific community was skeptical, Teller had a big ally in the White House, George Keyworth, President Reagan’s science advisor.
Keyworth, the former head of the physics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, spent most of his time there preaching the gospel of ‘Star Wars,” and asserting with lots of vigor and few facts that it would work.
Teller quickly figured out that President Reagan had great faith in science, and knew almost nothing about it. That enabled the physicist to use the politician for his own purposes. Then director emeritus of the Livermore Lab, Teller maintained that an x-ray laser recently developed there could destroy incoming missiles, and Reagan believed him, because he wanted to.
So in a brilliant speech on March 23, 1983, the President claimed the Soviet Union was building many more nuclear missiles and nuclear submarines. They were doing this, he claimed, at such a rapid rate that our paltry efforts could never keep up. But not to worry; the President told America that we could build a system to destroy any missiles in space before they could destroy us.
Teller had slyly managed to convince Reagan to dump many millions into his (Teller’s) research programs and into other nearby ones, also in California.
In his televised speech, the President “called upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to ... give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
For Teller, those words were gold. Born to an affluent family in Budapest, he was an early anti-communist warrior. He and three other brilliant students took advanced degrees in Berlin and then escaped Nazism by taking professorships in the United States. He enthusiastically volunteered his skills to the American war effort, and had advised fellow physicist Leo Szilard on the famous letter signed by Albert Einstein in 1939, that led to President Roosevelt authorizing the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb.
Though he was one of the physicists at Los Alamos, Teller’s mind was really on developing what he called the “super” -- the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. He later got his wish, and the United States tested its first H-bomb in 1952. Today, hydrogen bombs, a weapon that really could destroy virtually all life on earth, make up the vast majority of our bloated nuclear arsenal.
In his late seventies, Teller was a leading force in persuading President Reagan and this nation to devote an estimated $30 billion for Strategic Defense Initiative research – all for nothing. Nobody ever came close to making any of this operational, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton finally ended the project.
What a waste. Indeed, we stand on shoulders of our ancestors… for good and for bad. We have scientists to thank for sulfa drugs and penicillin, insulin, smallpox and polio vaccines, and even birth control pills.
But we also have them to blame for wasting too much effort and taxpayer dollars on weapons systems when much of it should have been on making our lives better. When those at the National Science Foundation and the White House determine which projects to fund, they would do well to keep boondoggles like the Strategic Defense Initiative in mind.
Douglas C. Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. See his work at 3dscienceblog.com.