Last Updated on May 6, 2022 by Shaun Snapp
- Ronald Reagan bluffed Gorbachev with a technically infeasible nuclear defense that employed high powered lasers fired from space.
- This could have been dismissed as fantasy if Gorbachev had listened to his scientists.
In the 1980s, Reagan proposed a space deployed laser shield that would allow the US military to destroy thousands of Soviet ICBMs while the ICBMs were high in the earth’s atmosphere.
The idea was not only technically infeasible, as I will show it broached into insanity.
While this article may seem immaterial to systems, it is in fact very important.
- First, the SDI was a technical topic and required large investments into technical work.
- Second, like failed IT initiatives, it required a lot of technical resources to lie to non specialists in order for it to persist and waste an enormous amount of tax dollars.
- Third, while the program was a ridiculous failure and enormous waste of resources, it is generally forgotten, and virtually never lampooned.
For these reasons, the SDI can teach us all important lessons about how technical projects can persist that are doomed to failure from the beginning.
How Reagan Came Up With The Idea of Introducing the SDI
In 1979, Reagan visited the NORAD command base, Cheyenne Mountain Complex, where he was first introduced to the extensive tracking and detection systems extending throughout the world and into space; however, he was struck by their comments that while they could track the attack down to the individual targets, there was nothing one could do to stop it. Reagan felt that in the event of an attack this would place the president in a terrible position, having to choose between immediate counterattack or attempting to absorb the attack and then maintain an upper hand in the post-attack era. Shultz suggests that this feeling of helplessness, coupled with the defensive ideas proposed by Teller a decade earlier, combined to form the impetus of the SDI.
Since the late 1970s, a group had been pushing for the development of a high-powered chemical laser that would be placed in orbit and attack ICBMs, the Space Based Laser (SBL). More recently, new developments under Project Excalibur by Teller’s “O-Group” at LLNL suggested that a single X-ray laser could shoot down dozens of missiles with a single shot. – Wikipedia
The Defense Establishment Rallies Around an Insane Idea: For That Sweet Sweet Funding
This US Air Force general may as well have been high on cocaine versus being perfectly sober to believe the SDI was feasible. The video is filled with one US military person lying through the length of the video. Each of these individuals had their careers tied to the various programs. Hence there is not any criticism of any of the subprograms that are presented in the video.
This brings up the question of how technically proficient and knowledgable the senior leadership of the Air Force was — or whether they knew it was false, but liked the funding.
This apparently DOD commissioned video, which discusses and does its best to promote the SDI. It uses a lot of complicated jargon. But it is clearly crazy.
A US Defense Department Produced Video: Which is Perfect for Insane Asylums
The video describes the problems with using lasers or space positioned nuclear weapons to hit other weapons. Yet, very little has been written on how ridiculous the program was. Even today, the US has major problems hitting a missile with another missile, much less hitting a missile with a high powered laser, and that is taking all of the complexities of space out of the equation.
This video clearly used some footage from the 1980 movie Flash Gordon.
The video proposes using diamond silicon chips. Its been almost 40 years, and we are still not benefiting from diamond silicon chips. This will be covered in more detail further on.
The video states that everything presented in the video is real.
The producers of the 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon most likely never saw this SDI video, and therefore did not know to sue for copyright infringement. Someone needed to tell Reagan and Gorbachev that Flash Gordon was fiction. Flash Gordon was not a real person nor where his exploits real. However, Reagan had Alzheimer’s while in office, never mentally recovered from being shot and almost dying. He was having his meeting schedule planned by Nancy’s Tarot Card reader, so Reagan needed to be in assisted living — not the president of a country, particularly one with a nuclear arsenal.
How Easy is the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” to Disprove?
If Gorbachev had just talked to his scientists, they could have told him the whole thing was a fake. The fact that Reagan did not know it was fake should not have stopped Gorbachev from fact-checking the SDI.
Here are some important things that were known at the time.
- You can’t shoot high powered lasers from space. Even today, you can’t do this from land — where there are no limitations on the size of the laser equipment and the fuel source.
- It costs as much as the weight of an item in gold to put anything into orbit. This is a severe limitation to putting high powered lasers into space. In 1983, the largest things put into orbit were satellites, which drew their power from solar panels. The International Space Station was not put into orbit until 1993, and it can even, today in 2020, only hold a crew of 6 people.
- You economically can’t lift the fuel to support a laser into space.
Roughly condensed, if the US could not do something on land — how did it intend to do it in space? Everything in space becomes enormously more complex and limiting. And one of the biggest limitations is the payloads that can be moved into space. The payload fraction, which is the percentage of the overall weight moved into space or orbit, usually is around 5% of the total weight of the overall rocket.
This shuttle shows the rough concept of how much energy is required to escape the earth’s orbit. Under the SDI, mass quantities of fuel to power high energy lasers would need to be launched into space. Each laser would have to be so powerful that it could penetrate a missile and destroy it.
What Were the Estimated Energy Requirements for the SDI?
The energy requirements to power lasers were described in the 1984 Scientific America article Space-based Ballistic-Missile Defense.
A successful defense against an attack by the 1,400 ICBM’s in the current Russian force would require a total energy deposition of 225,000 megajoules. (A factor of about 10 is necessary to compensate for atmospheric absorption, reflection losses at the mirrors and overcast skies.) If the time available for interception were 100 seconds and the lasers had an electrical efficiency of 6 percent, the power requirement would be more than the output of 300 1,000- megawatt power plants, or more than 60 percent of the current electrical generating capacity of the entire U.S.(emphasis added)
Moreover, this energy could not be extracted instantaneously from the national power grid, and it could not be stored by any known technology for instantaneous discharge. Special power plants would have to be built; even though they would need to operate only for minutes, an investment of $300 per kilowatt is a reasonable estimate, and so the outlay for the power supply alone would exceed $ 100 billion.
This partial cost estimate is highly optimistic. It assumes that all the boosters could be destroyed on the first shot
To emphasize the point, the SDI required 60% of the yearly power generation would have had to have been available instantaneously. This means that the entire energy production capacity of the US (in 1984) would have been insufficient for the needs of the SDI. Imagine every power plant at that time lifted onto space by rockets. Imagine all of the fuel sources, coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc, continually loaded into space.
This is the Belews Creek power station in North Carolina operated by Duke Energy. How is this power station supposed to be lifted into space?
After Belews Creek all of the other power stations on this map must be lifted into space. This will still not be enough to power the SDI lasers.
Just this issue stops the SDI dead in its tracks, forget all the other problems. (There were other ideas, in addition to space-based lasers, but none of them made any sense, and all failed under testing.) But here are a few other problems.
The Cost of the SDI
Of course the cost of the entire system of lasers, mirrors, sensors and computers would far exceed the cost of the power plant, but at this stage virtually all the required technologies are too immature to allow a fair estimate of their cost.
So placing orbiting power plants into space would be the lower of the cost items versus the cost of the other components of the system — all of which are too immature to be even estimated.
How the SDI Put the Fear of God into Gorbachev
Regan’s ridiculous plan legitimately spooked Gorbachev. It was on the cover of Time Magazine and generally uncritically accepted.
This is the Time Magazine cover from 1983. There are those that propose that Reagan did not believe in the SDI and that it was a hoax that Reagan used to wring concessions out of Gorbachev. However, there is no evidence that this is true. Every indicator was the Reagan truly believed in the SDI. And the SDI was funded to the tune of $30 billion at the time, which is roughly $74 billion in 2020 dollars. Also, one should understand the superficiality of Reagan. At one point during the negotiation, he asked Gorbachev if the Soviet Union would come to the US’s aid if it were attacked by aliens.
Carl Sagan brought rational analysis to the SDI.
Why Gorbachev Bought It
First-hand accounts of Gorbachev negotiating with Reagan were that Gorbachev bought it. During their negotiations in 1985, Gorbachev continually pushed for Reagan to dispense with the SDI, and Reagan refused. This means Gorbachev was asking for Reagan to concede something that the US would never be able to build.
The question is, why didn’t he listen to his scientists who would have had no problem falsifying the claim of such a system? One problem might have been that the SDI could have been a number of approaches. Lasers were one idea, but there were other ideas, none of which were practical.
The number of different approaches that could have been used may have overwhelmed Gorbachev. Secondly, most of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was copied from the US. That is, while the Soviet Union had great scientists, they lagged the US in technology for the entirety of the Cold War. This means that Gorbachev and some of the Soviet scientists may have thought that the US had some tricks up its sleeve that it could not predict. However, most of the SDI’s claims were just beyond ludicrous, and they assumed the applications of technologies that the Soviets would have had to have known had yet to be developed and other things that were just not possible.
However, a few things should have been obvious.
Limitation #1: Lack of Comprehensiveness of the Missile Sheild
Any defensive missile shield would have had to have been comprehensive to be a deterrent. By the time the SDI became a topic, warheads had increased in the payload to the point where not that many would have needed to get through the shield. The Soviet Union had a tremendous number of both ICBMs and but also atomic bombs that were not ICBMs. And the SDI would have had zero impact on any nuclear missile that did not rise high into the atmosphere.
This is explained in the following quotation from the previously quoted Scientific American article in 1984.
Submarine based missiles would be harder to intercept than ICBM’s, which spend 30 minutes or so on trajectories whose launch points are precisely known. Moreover, a space-based defense system would be unable to intercept ground-hugging cruise missiles, which can deliver nuclear warheads to distant targets with an accuracy that is independent of range.
Both superpowers are developing sea-launched cruise missiles, and these weapons are certain to become a major part of their strategic forces once space-based ballistic-missile-defense systems appear on the horizon.
This exact issue was covered by Kurt Gottfried, Professor of Physics, who critiqued the program in 1984 in Scientific American.
To be useful a nationwide defense would have to intercept and eliminate virtually all the 10,000 or so nuclear warheads that each side is currently capable of committing to a major strategic attack. For a city attack it could not wait until the atmosphere allowed the defense to discriminate between warheads and decoys. Such a high rate of attrition would be conceivable only if there were several layers of defense, each of which could reliably intercept a large percentage of the attacking force.
If the SDI could not be a comprehensive shield and only a small number of missiles needed to get through, what was the point of the SDI?
Limitation #2: The Expense Involved
The expense of building and SDI would have been enormous. This funding would have been so substantial that it would have negatively impacted other areas of the US’s military capabilities. That is, the Soviet Union would have preferred the US to go forward with the SDI rather than the US not invest in the SDI.
These two points, even if the feasibility had not been punctured, means the SDI could never have been an effective shield.
What Happened to the SDI?
The SDI eventually died an inglorious death ten years after its initial proposal.
SDI officially ended in 1993, when the Bill Clinton administration redirected the efforts towards theatre ballistic missiles and renamed the agency the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). – Wikipedia
The program had been downgraded by George Bush Sr. before this. This means that before the 1990s began, the SDI was already cut back as a program.
A Legacy of Wasted Money and Silent Failure
The Space Defense Initiative was ended, without it accomplishing any of the goals that it was set for it. Essentially the program was simply forgotten, without its ridiculous claims ever being punctured for the public.
The best way of thinking of the SDI was as an elaborate fraud. This was true even though the military rigged the tests of various hits on missiles to make it appear that the program was working.
..the New York Times in August 1993 reported that the HOE4 test was rigged to increase the likelihood of a successful hit. At the urging of Senator David Pryor, the General Accounting Office investigated the claims and concluded that though steps were taken to make it easier for the interceptor to find its target (including some of those alleged by the New York Times), the available data indicated that the interceptor had been successfully guided by its onboard infrared sensors in the collision, and not by an onboard radar guidance system as alleged. – Wikipedia
Upon reading various analyses of the SDI, I was struck by how uncritical the analyses were. This is in retrospect, not as if the articles were written without having been able to see what happened.
Most of the coverage was deferential to the SDI. And this is true even though SDI promotional videos from the 1980s are completely insane.
In analyzing other major projects like ERP systems, again the fact that the reality never lived up to the promises, was similarly not exposed. I wrote the book The Real Story Behind ERP to expose the academic literature on how poorly these systems had performed. We are now going through a period of enormous exaggeration of the benefits of AI/ML. These types of projects have already failed to meet their promises. Yet again, this is hidden from the public as I cover in the article The Reality of Machine Learning Versus the Hype of ML, and in the article How Many AI Projects Will Fail Due to a Lack of Data?
Reading About the Previous Scam…From One of the Scammers
Another problem is that those that have written retrospectives on the SDI were themselves involved in the scam.
This is not going to lead to any accuracy.
For example, one of the proponents of the SDI was the Heritage Foundation. This is a conservative think tank that creates marketing material for the power elite essentially, and they were a big cheerleader for the SDI in the 1980s.
Notice how the Heritage Foundation describes the SDI in a retrospective article on the program.
Then a politician promises something that “holds the promise of changing the course of human history,” we naturally assume it’s typical overstatement. But when President Ronald Reagan said that on March 23, 1983, in reference to his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), he was exactly right.
His speech that day introduced Americans and the world to SDI, a comprehensive, layered ballistic missile-defense program designed to protect the United States and its allies from a threat that had bedeviled it for more than 20 years. It marked a true turning point in our adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union.
The Heritage Foundation was privileged to lay the visionary groundwork that led to Reagan’s historic announcement. The year before the president’s SDI address, the Foundation published its first missile-defense study, “High Frontier: A New National Strategy.” The study proposed a comprehensive system, including laser weapons capable of intercepting Soviet missiles as they were launched or while they traveled in space toward the United States.
President Reagan’s new policy was truly visionary. At that point, most of the country’s policymaking elite considered Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD, appropriately enough) an acceptable policy to deter the Soviet Union. MAD relied on maintaining devastating second-strike forces, meaning that even if an enemy attacked the United States first, enough U.S. nuclear forces would survive to inflict massive casualties to that enemy.
President Reagan was skeptical of the MAD doctrine. He also didn’t believe missile defense was impossible for the nation that had succeeded in putting a man on the Moon more than a decade earlier. The “human spirit,” he said, “must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.”
But a lot more work remains to be done, especially since the program was hampered at times by the Obama administration. The new administration must invest in space-based missile-defense interceptors, as envisioned under SDI. We must develop and deploy directed-energy weapons, building on the research and development legacy of the SDI program. With ballistic missile-defense technologies becoming more available, the task is more urgent than ever.
Thirty-four years ago, Ronald Reagan described a visionary goal to help secure our country. Now we must build on his vision — and ensure that we have a viable missile defense capability that protects us all well into the future.
How can a program that was insane from its inception, which died back in 1993, and which accomplished none of its objectives described as described above? Secondly, Obama did not take office until 2008. That is 25 years after the program was killed by Clinton. Did Obama resist reanimating the SDI? I have not researched that topic, but if he did, that only gives him points for sanity. Secondly, the Cold War was over by the 1990s. So why would the US choose from 2008 to 2016 to reinvest mightily in nuclear missile defense?
Here is another example of trying to justify the SDI, this time from two SDI administrators.
From a geopolitical perspective, SDI led to a sea change in our negotiations with the former Soviet Union and, by informed and authoritative accounts, the end of the Cold War. From a management perspective, forming SDIO stimulated the DOD to integrate a number of existing technology programs and supplement them in the context of an identified goal–pushing already evolving technologies toward practical applications faster than would have been the case if the various programs had been pursued separately. From a technical perspective, significant advances have been achieved–not only enabling fielding of effective defenses in the near future, but also providing substantial spin-offs to the military, civil and commercial sectors. – High Frontier
So essentially, according to these SDI administrators, the program was never exaggerated or false and has had huge spin-offs. One which is named is diamond semiconductors.
Another interesting example is the development of diamond film. With its $40-million investment in diamond film technology since 1986, SDIO is singularly responsible for fostering a new US industry with the potential of a multi-billion-dollar global market after the end of this century. In military systems, diamond semiconductors promise to outperform silicon, gallium arsenide, and even silicon carbide in almost every way: switching speed, temperature tolerance, breakdown voltage, radiation hardness, power output, ruggedness, etc. Because of diamond’s large energy band-gap and other physical properties, diamond electronics have extremely high switching speeds. Also of particular note is that diamond is inherently more radiation-hard than other electronic materials–roughly 4-times the hardness of gallium arsenide. – High Frontier
The problem is that the article above was written in September of 1993. Therefore, we know what happened since this time. And even in 2020 diamond semiconductors are not used any commercial application. Here is an article from 2008 that also promoted their potential.
While diamond has significant potential, it possesses a number of features that present challenges. Device designs in which holes are the only available charge carrier are required because of the absence of a convincing n-type dopant. The hardness and chemical inertness of the material require the development of novel fabrication processes. – Materials Today
This, combined with the lack of progress since that time means that the claims of the great benefits from diamond semiconductors claimed by the two SDI administrators are not true.
The two SDI administrators also claimed the SDI program ended the entire Cold War. However, this same claim has been made by those that illegally supported the Muhajedin in their fight against the Soviets in the Afghanistan War. Others attribute the end of the Cold War of the Soviet Union to the internal decline of the Soviet Union. Most of the population simply stopped believing that the Soviet system was going to deliver improved living standards to them after it clearly failed to do so for decades. A cynical saying grew up in the Soviet Union that “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Gorbachev has also claimed credit for ending the cold war.
The line of people who claimed to have been instrumental in ending the Cold War is long indeed.
Notice another claim.
It is hard to argue that focusing a number of technology programs under a high-visibility, Presidentially mandated SDI program was a bad idea–even if substantial new funding had been required. Without counting the value of the sweeping changes throughout Europe and with our former adversaries, the so-called “peace dividend” from ending the Cold War more than repaid the $30-billion investment of the past decade in just a couple of years and, in 5-years, was over 5-times the total 10-year SDI investment.
That is right — the SDI is entirely to thank for the peace dividend (which did not last long, as the US now spends more as a percentage of GDP on the military since WW2).
Clearly, two administrators of the SDI are not going to write a paper admitting that the SDI was a fraud and a massive waste of funds.
Listening to Edwin Teller?
Something else that was unmentioned is why anyone continued to listen to Edwin Teller. Edwin Teller, head of the Laurence Livermore Laboratories, was one of the first to float the idea of a space-based missile shield. Teller was a brilliant physicist, but he was also dishonest. He testified against Robert Oppenheimer, helping the US Government’s case against Oppenheimer that he was a Soviet spy, which Teller knew was not true. How Oppenheimer had already passed the US security clearance check to lead the Manhattan Project, the most top-secret project the US Government had during WW2, all while being a Soviet spy, is a question the US Government should have asked itself. Teller’s testimony against the innocent Oppenheimer led to both the end of Oppenheimer’s career, and to Teller being ostracized by colleagues for what was an obvious political move.
The entire trial was an excuse to eliminate Oppenheimer as an opposing voice as he opposed Teller’s massive hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer’s disputed the need for a bomb that was so large that it would destroy an area far larger than a major city had no strategic importance as a deterrent.
High intelligence individuals who are also dishonest are not particularly useful, because you never know if you can rely on the information they provide. Teller was the type of scientist who never questioned if something was appropriate or its implications on safety, only whether it could be accomplished. And he had a long term pattern of supporting extremely bad ideas.
Teller had the idea to use nuclear weapons to excavate ports. So you would drop the nuclear bomb into the area along the coast you wanted to build. The bomb would create an enormous hole that would fill with water, and then you would build the port around this newly created bomb hole.
This is not a joke. This is what Teller thought was a good use of nuclear weapons.
Edwin Teller was so extreme in is support for insane ideas, it is speculated he was the model of the mad nuclear scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Why Teller was allowed to run Laurence Livermore Laboratories (one of the US Government’s principal nuclear research entities) for several is also an oddity considering his unstable personality.
Views on Teller from Contemporaries
Nobel Prize winning physicist Isidor I. Rabi once suggested that “It would have been a better world without Teller.” – Wikipedia
To me Teller will always be a prime example of the harm that brilliant men can do – either by accident or design – when they are placed in positions of power; as the famed historian Richard Rhodes said about Teller in an interview, “Teller consistently gave bad advice to every president that he worked for”. It’s a phenomenon that is a mainstay of politics but Teller’s case sadly indicates that even science can be put into the service of such misuse of power. – Scientific American
The creation of the SDI (if it could have been made to work, which was an impossibility) would have in principle, though not, in reality, eliminated the mutually assured destruction or MAD that the US stated was its primary strategy to maintain homeostasis with the Soviet Union. Another major problem was that even if it could be made to work, the Soviet Union had many warheads that it could have used that flew lower than which any SDI could have ever reached.
All of these things were obvious before the first dime was spent on the SDI program.
Why a program that was both impossible, but could never have been an effective shield due to this very large loophole, is an important consideration to how infeasible ideas can persist and receive funding. The SDI creates essential observations that can be used to analyze other proposed projects.
- Lack of Critical Analysis by Financially Biased Parties: Most often, the individuals with the most domain expertise in the subject area are also financially biased in their analysis of the project. This is why it is necessary to get inputs from knowledgeable people who do not stand to gain financially if the project is approved.
- Lack of Rearward Analysis: The SDI should have at least been lampooned in retrospect. However, it was allowed to die quietly. This means that its original proposals were never exposed, and those that made the proposals never held accountable for the false information they provided. This is a long-established pattern of projects, particularly very expensive projects — were those involved in the project seek to hide the outcomes from those that are the customers of the projects.
Finally, even though it would be a challenge to conceive of a more ridiculous program than the SDI, it continues to have a number of built-in defenders — which are those that were financially connected to the program, and who actively lie about the program to those who are outside of the field. This is a perfect illustration that no matter how badly a program is conceived or how much it fails to meet objectives, those reputationally or financially connected to a program, technology, philosophy will continue to defend that item.
Edward Teller was born on this day 106 years ago. Teller is best known to the general public for two things: his reputation as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” and as a key villain in the story of the downfall of Robert Oppenheimer. To me Teller will always be a prime example of the harm that brilliant men can do – either by accident or design – when they are placed in positions of power; as the famed historian Richard Rhodes said about Teller in an interview, “Teller consistently gave bad advice to every president that he worked for”. It’s a phenomenon that is a mainstay of politics but Teller’s case sadly indicates that even science can be put into the service of such misuse of power
Ironically it is the two most publicly known facts about Teller that are also probably not entirely accurate. Later in life he often complained that the public had exaggerated his roles in both the hydrogen bomb program and in the ousting of Oppenheimer, and this contention was largely true. In truth he deserved both less credit and less blame for his two major acts. Without Teller hydrogen bombs would still have been developed and without Teller Oppenheimer would still have been removed from his role as the government’s foremost scientific advisor.
The question that continues to dog historians and scientists is simple; why did Teller behave the way he did? By any account he was a brilliant man, well attuned to the massive overkill by nuclear weapons that he was advocating and also well attuned to the damage he would cause Oppenheimer and the scientific community by testifying against the father of the atomic bomb. He was also often a warm person and clearly desired friendship with his peers, so why did he choose to alienate so many who were close to him? The answers to these questions undoubtedly lie in Teller’s background. Growing up in progressive Hungary at the turn of the century as the son of a well to do Jewish father, Teller was part of a constellation of Hungarian prodigies with similar cultural and family backgrounds who followed similar trajectories, emigrated to the United States and became famous scientists. Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann were all childhood friends.
Sadly Teller became a psychological casualty of Hungary’s post-World War 1 communist and fascist regimes early in his childhood when he witnessed first hand the depredations visited upon his country by Bela Kun and then by Miklos Horthy. The chaos and uncertainty brought about by the communists left a deep impression on the sensitive young boy and traumatized him for life. Later when Teller migrated to Germany, England and America he saw the noose of Nazism tightening around Europe. This combined double blow brought about by the cruelties of communism and Nazism seems to have dictated almost every one of Teller’s major decisions for the rest of his life.
The fear of totalitarianism manifested itself early, leading Teller to be among the first ones to push for a US nuclear weapons program. He was Leo Szilard’s driver when Szilard went to meet Einstein in his Long Island cottage and got the famous letter to FDR signed by the great physicist. Along with Szilard and Wigner Teller was the first one to raise the alarm about a potential German atomic project and he lobbied vigorously for the government to take notice. By the time the war started he was a respected professor at George Washington University. Goaded by his experiences and inner conscience, Teller became one of Oppenheimer’s first recruits at Los Alamos where he moved at the beginning of the Manhattan Project in the spring of 1943.
Oppenheimer and Teller’s meeting was like one of those fateful events in Greek tragedies which is destined to end in friction and tragedy. Perhaps the most ironic twist in this story is how similar the two men were; brilliant physicists who were both products of high culture and affluent families, interested in literature and the arts, envisioning a great role for themselves in history and sensitive to the plight of human beings around them. However, their personalities clashed almost right from the beginning, although the mistrust was mostly engendered by Teller.
Not all of it was Teller’s fault, however. By the time Teller met Oppenheimer the latter had established himself as the foremost American-born theoretical physicist of his age, a man who could hold sway over even Nobel Laureates with his astonishingly quick mind, dazzlingly Catholic interests and knowledge and ability to metamorphose into adopting whatever role history had thrust upon him. But men like Oppenheimer are hardly simple, and Oppenheimer’s colleagues and students usually fell into two extreme camps, those who saw him as an insecure and pretentious poseur and those who idolized his intellect. Clearly Teller fell into the former group.
The friction between the two men was accentuated after Teller moved to Los Alamos when Oppenheimer made Hans Bethe the head of the project’s important theoretical division. Teller understandably chafed at the choice since unlike Bethe he had lived with the project since the beginning, but Oppenheimer’s decision was wise; he had sized up both physicists and realized that while both were undoubtedly scientifically capable, administering a division of prima donnas needed steadfast determination, levelheaded decision making and the ability to be a team player while quietly soothing egos, all of which were qualities inherent in Bethe but not in the volatile Teller.
Teller never really recovered from this slight and from then on his relationship with both Oppenheimer and Bethe (with whom he had been best friends for years) was increasingly strained. It wouldn’t be the first time he let the personal interfere with the professional and I think this was his first great tragedy – the inability to separate personal feelings from objective thinking.
Sadly his initial design for the Super was fatally flawed; while an atomic bomb would in fact ignite a large mass of tritium or deuterium, energy losses would be too rapid to sustain a successful fusion reaction. Even after knowing this Teller kept pushing for the design, taking advantage of the worsening political situation and his own growing prominence in the scientific community. This was Teller’s first real dishonest act.
Oppenheimer was hardly the only one opposing the project – prominent scientists like Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi were even more vocal in their opposition – but Oppenheimer’s reputation, his role as the government’s foremost nuclear advisor and his often casual cruelty and impatience with lesser men made him stand out.
This inability to keep the personal separate from reality exemplified Teller’s obsession with nuclear weapons for the next fifty years until his death. At one point he was paranoid enough to proclaim that he saw himself in a Soviet prison camp within five years. I will not go so far as to label Teller paranoid from a medical standpoint but some of the symptoms certainly seem to be there. Teller’s attachment to his hydrogen bombs became so absolute that he essentially opposed almost every effort to seek reconciliation and arms reductions with the Soviets.
Sagan has a particularly illuminating take on Teller’s relationship with nuclear weapons in his book “The Demon- Haunted World”. The book has an entire chapter on Teller in which Sagan tries to understand Teller’s love affair with bombs. Sagan’s opinion is that Teller was actually sincere in his beliefs that nuclear weapons were humanity’s savior. He actually believed that these weapons would solve all our problems in war and peace. This led to him advocating rather outlandish uses for nuclear weapons: “Do you want to find out more about moon dust? Explode a nuclear weapon on the moon and analyze the spectrum of the resulting dust. Do you want to excavate harbors or change the course of rivers? Nuclear weapons can do the job”.
Other scientists criticized the project as being potentially unsafe for the local wildlife and the Inupiat people living near the designated area, who were not officially told of the plan until March 1960. Additionally, it turned out that the harbor would be ice-bound for nine months out of the year. In the end, due to the financial infeasibility of the project and the concerns over radiation-related health issues, the project was abandoned in 1962.
Scandal erupted when Teller (and his associate Lowell Wood) were accused of deliberately overselling the program and perhaps encouraging the dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who had attempted to correct the error.
Not only did the system have to detect when a missile launch occurred, it also had to track the missiles in flight, communicate that information to the weapons poised to shoot down those missiles, and finally, aim and fire those weapons to score directs hit on fast-moving targets.
To make matters even more complicated, the Soviets could add missile decoys, overwhelm the system by building more ICBMs or even take aim at the defense system itself, incapacitating it before launching a nuclear attack in the first place. And finally, certain technologies were off the table from the start thanks to restrictions outlined in the ABM and Outer Space treaties.
By 1986, many of the promising ideas were failing. Teller’s X-ray laser, run under Project Excalibur, failed several key tests in 1986 and was soon being suggested solely for the anti-satellite role. The particle beam concept was demonstrated to basically not work, as was the case with several other concepts. Only the Space Based Laser seemed to have any hope of developing in the short term, but it was growing in size due to its fuel consumption.
Another criticism of SDI was that it would not be effective against non-space faring weapons, namely cruise missiles, bombers, short-range ballistic missile submarines and non-conventional delivery methods; however, it was never intended to act as a defense against non-space faring weapons.
Carl Sagan punctured many ridiculous ideas in his career.
Documentary on the SDI. In this video at the 23-minute mark, a Soviet scientist states that the SDI did not seem feasible. This scientist and of course many others were available for Gorbachev to consult.