A flash fire at a test facility near San Juan Capistrano will delay indefinitely the final testing of the missile-killing Alpha laser, a key component of President Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative, the Pentagon disclosed Thursday.
An Air Force official said the testing schedule would be set back at least several weeks.
The fire broke out Jan. 7 at the sprawling 2,700-acre TRW Inc. plant in southern Orange County when a worker opened a valve at the wrong time, officials said.
The error caused a brief but intense fire in piping at the test facility, contaminating the main vacuum chamber that is used to simulate conditions in space, in which the laser would be fired. No one was injured in the fire, and the extent of damage is still not known.
With the vacuum chamber contaminated by smoke and debris, officials said that it is impossible to conduct experiments in which the laser beam would be produced and tested in space-like conditions.
That phase of the Alpha laser project had been scheduled for sometime during the first half of this year, but it has now been postponed indefinitely.
"It's now been three weeks and we still don't really know the extent of the damage," said Maj. Michael Fick, a spokesman for the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, N.M. "This is a complex system and we just don't know how long things will be delayed."
Fick said that Air Force officials assigned to the Alpha project were at the Capistrano site on Thursday inspecting the damage.
TRW Inc., a Redondo Beach-based aerospace research firm, is under contract from the Air Force to develop a powerful, compact chemical laser that could be launched into space in the early 1990s to destroy enemy missiles and satellites.
The $200-million Alpha laser is one of the primary projects of the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative, which envisions using a space-based laser system to defend against a missile attack.
The Alpha laser is designed to be mounted on a platform in space. It would fire a high-energy beam at a mirror that would direct it at incoming missiles.
If the technology proves feasible--and if Star Wars development is not derailed by political opposition--the laser will be launched in the early 1990s, Air Force experts said.
But the laser device faces many scientific and technical hurdles, including mastering the ability to direct a beam about the diameter of a basketball to a moving target miles away and to hold it there for the time it takes to destroy the object.
It was during preparations for one test of the laser that the accident occurred, Fick said.
"They were preparing for a test when the wrong valve was opened, causing fluorine to be released into a line that resulted in damage," he said. "What resulted was a brief, self-contained fire which damaged several valves, associated piping and control cables. There was no damage to the Alpha laser itself."
The laser device is being constructed in the same building where the fire broke out, but the blaze was contained quickly and the device was never threatened, officials said.
At the time of the accident, Fick said, TRW was about to conduct experiments to determine if the system would form a free fluorine compound necessary to create a lasing medium.
"The medium is the area where the actual lasing takes place," Fick explained.