I know, I know: if there’s one thing lefty bloggers love pointing out, it’s the disconnect between the current right-wing Ronald Reagan fantasy and the tax-raising, big-spending pragmatic reality. Well, here’s a good one. If you’re under a certain age and not a high-energy physics fanboy, you might not be aware that a particle accelerator to put the Large Hadron Collider to absolute shame was under construction in Texas in the late-’80s—the Superconducting Supercollider, a.k.a. the Desertron.
As Ian Sample recount’s in his recent book, Massive, a long history/explanation of the Higgs boson, the Desertron was to be “the largest pure science project ever.” And it’s approval was granted by President Reagan himself after a powerful presentation by Alvin Trivelpiece, the director of the U.S.’ Office of Energy Research.
The initial cost was to be $4.4 billion, which is about $7.5 billion in today’s dollars. For reference, the LHC was budgeted at $9 billion. And, meanwhile, the soon to be defunct Tevatron collider, the U.S.’ rival to the LHC, would have required about $35 million a year to continue to hunt for the Higgs. That requested extension was denied by the Department of Energy last month, leaving the U.S. with nothing to offer anymore in the hunt.
Recounted in Massive and in sci-fi writer John G. Cramer’s brief history of the Desertron here, Reagan wasn’t f*cking around either. His instructions to Trivelpiece and the Department of Energy in 1987 were to “throw deep,” a favorite Reagan football quote that basically translates to “win this thing even if it means taking a risk.”
The Desertron died two administrations later during the belt-tightening years of Clinton. From Cramer’s essay:
Clinton’s new Science Advisor John Gibbons did not give active support to the SSC project, as had his predecessor, Alan Bromley, and Clinton’s new Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, now famous for her million dollar travel excursions, proclaimed during her confirmation hearings that she was “not passionate” about the SSC. In September, 1993 when her passions were finally aroused, she took the counter-productive steps of re-shuffling major SSC contractors and increasing the already bloated oversight team to 140 bureaucrats in the Dallas DOE Office. Before the two critical votes in June and October, neither Clinton nor Gore was willing to make personal appeals to House Members on behalf of the SSC, as Bush had in 1992.
The final blow to the SSC came late in 1993 when the DOE’s Baseline Validation Report was released. The validation group surveyed the sorry history of SSC cost escalations and concluded that extreme conservatism was needed. Their report advocated much larger safety and contingency margins and moved the completion date back to 2004, increasing the project cost to $11.5 billion or another 15% increase.
The DOE put $2 billion into the project before then, however, and currently the Desertron site is an overgrown prison-looking thing with some holes in the ground. So it goes. The usual explanation nowadays blames the International Space Station for the project’s death. It came about at nearly the same time and for the same cost and, from a political standpoint, is wicked glamorous.
This, however, is not:
As for the Tevetron, the DOE cited the “challenging” budget climate, and explained it just straight couldn’t find the extra money. And as for energy physics in the U.S. in general, President Obama tried to boost overall funding for the DOE’s Office of Science in his just-announced budget. But, naturally, Republican’s in the House are already clamoring for a nearly $1 billion dollar cut to the department, putting thousands of science jobs in jeopardy.
Here’s to losing one for the Gipper, dicks.
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