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THE MAN WHO BLEW THE WHISTLE ON 'STAR WARS' : Roy Woodruff's Ordeal Began When He Tried to Turn the Vision of an X-ray Laser into Reality

July 17, 1988|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer, a Times staff writer whose collection of essays, "Thinking Tunafish, Talking Death," will be published by Hill and Wang this fall, has written extensively about the Strategic Defense Initiative.

About half an hour into the formal meeting, Abrahamson went to a display board and summarized the consensus, which was that Livermore would be given $60 million, Los Alamos $30 million and Sandia $10 million. "He raises his pen to the board to write the numbers," Woodruff says, "and in walks Dr. Teller," who asked to speak. According to Woodruff, whose minutes of the meeting have been confirmed by other participants, Teller said he wanted the entire $100 million to go to Livermore. The team at Livermore was "very bright and enthusiastic," Teller argued. And, more important, President Reagan had promised all the money to him.

Teller got what he wanted: Without further discussion, Abrahamson announced that the entire $100 million in new funding would go to Livermore and that the other labs would be expected to get their money from other, unnamed sources. Woodruff, who was sitting on a couch with two representatives from Los Alamos, says he sank into his seat with embarrassment at Teller's intervention.

FAST TIMES AT LIVERMORE LAB

BUT GETTING MONEY was one thing. Producing Super Excalibur was quite another. No one knew how to do it. For most of the scientists working on the problem at Livermore under Woodruff's direction, this meant a steady uphill attempt to do what has so far remained the impossible. But there are others, centered in the "O Group," a small think tank at the lab led by Wood, who came up with new and ever-wilder schemes. They worked around the clock, munching on pizza and peanut-butter sandwiches like the kids in the movie "War Games," running endless computer simulations of the effects of Space Age weapons. And of course, there were the closely monitored nuclear explosions in the Nevada desert. The O Group's science was good, sometimes brilliant; their work was hard and the results, often leaked in violation of security rules, seemed promising.

One festive night in 1985 was typical of the group's operations. In the bowels of Livermore, the young scientists waited in the disarray of their workspace, strewn with half-eaten pizzas, Coke bottles and candy wrappers, for a small plane to return from the Nevada test site after what was thought to have been a remarkably successful test. A nuclear bomb studded with "lasing" rods had been placed at the bottom of a subterranean 30-meter-tall canister filled with measuring instruments. Those rods, when jiggled by the explosion, were supposed to emit X-ray laser beams in the fraction of a second before they were vaporized. If the light could be focused in sufficient brightness, someday it might make a beam weapon.

Information about the test should have been secret, but Teller could not contain his excitement and had bragged about the test's results to a Times reporter. There was even a flyer on Lowell Wood's bulletin board proclaiming a "brightness party," implying that the test had produced a high-intensity beam. As it turned out, there was no way of knowing: The blast-monitoring equipment, other scientists had warned, was unreliable. In the course of gathering the X-rays and reflecting their light during the test, the beam-measuring instruments also heated up and threw their own light, which could be confused with an X-ray laser. However, such concerns didn't stop the party.

The O Group, after all, was Teller's team, dreamers responsible for creating theoretial models of weapons. They answered doubters with the challenge: "You can't prove it's impossible."

THE BIG SELL

WOODRUFF WAS troubled. Despite the claims being offered to the Administration and Congress, then almost instantaneously leaked to the media, the O Group was making no measurable progress. As the lab's associate director, Woodruff had his hands full simply trying to make the original Excalibur anti-satellite weapon a reality, and while that seemed a distant possibility, at least he knew where the lab's work was headed. But the Super Excalibur "silver bullet" notion of Teller and Wood, while a lively challenge for computer simulations, still existed only in a few scientists' imaginations. Yet Teller and Wood insisted on continuing to sell Super Excalibur as an about-to-happen weapons system. Woodruff says he was particularly offended when their claims were used to buttress arguments against arms-control negotiations between the superpowers in Geneva. His conflict with the Teller camp came to a head over a new series of letters that Teller sent without Woodruff's knowledge and despite what he thought was his understanding with lab director Batzel.

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