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COLUMN ONE : Turning Swords to Scientific Plowshares : Once-secret military hardware is a potential windfall for civilian researchers. The toughest part is finding money to convert the high-tech gear to peaceful uses.

SCIENCE COMES IN FROM THE COLD: Research in the Era of Defense Conversion. First in an occasional series

October 14, 1994|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — In darkness, two men in orange spacesuits trudge across the Mojave salt flats to take their seats in the cockpit of a spectral SR-71. Sitting on the Tarmac, the supersonic spy plane is blacker than a moonless midnight.

A dozen civilian technicians in jeans and T-shirts tinker with the temperamental aircraft, as rivulets of jet fuel stream like sweat off its wings and angular fuselage.

It is a pre-dawn scene that could be drawn from the secret annals of the Cold War.

There are no Air Force blue-suiters in evidence, however, no armed MPs or tight-lipped military spooks. Overseeing the operation is a young civilian astronomer in faded Guess jeans and a white cowboy shirt, her waist-length brown hair held out of her eyes by sunglasses pushed up on her forehead.

The stealthy craft is bound not for forbidden airspace over Russia or North Korea, but for the stratosphere above Los Angeles, where UCLA researchers will use its unique high-altitude capabilities to calibrate sensors designed to monitor the health of Earth's atmosphere.

The mission is one small symbol of a fundamental change transforming the conduct of science in the United States after the Cold War.

A receding tide of defense funding has exposed an unexpected peace dividend: a windfall of laboratory facilities, once-secret apparatus, and sophisticated technology, like the SR-71, developed to bolster the military in the decades of conflict with the Soviet Union.

As the threat of nuclear annihilation appears to subside, scientists like Jacklyn R. Green, the planetary astronomer in charge of the recent NASA-sponsored SR-71 flight, are scrambling to salvage such swords of high technology and convert them into tools of basic, civilian research. It is a daunting task to even locate such technological treasures, and--in an era of shrinking federal research dollars--harder still to find the money to operate them.

"It is our inheritance from the Cold War," she said. "We own it. Our parents' generation paid dearly for it. It is a national resource."

Green, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is at the forefront of those who are finding useful scientific work for Cold War hardware forced into retirement.

The Defense Department retired its SR-71 fleet--the world's fastest and highest-flying production aircraft--in 1990. Green learned of the surplus planes by chance over lunch one day and immediately volunteered to comb the scientific community for experiments suitable for the supersonic craft.

"It is a solution looking for a problem," Green said of the sleek craft silhouetted in the desert dawn.

Green and SR-71 project manager David T. Lux at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center now have the use of three SR-71s along with dozens of spare engines, hundreds of special 22-ply tires and other unique spare parts worth about $1 billion.

They also collected a cache of Thor ICBM missiles the military can no longer store and, most recently, claimed a set of supersonic Mach-3 drones designed for especially hazardous surveillance missions over Siberia and China. The Air Force had intended to donate the once-secret drones to a museum.

Other scientists also are claiming their Cold War patrimony.

At the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, marine seismologist John Orcutt is using a once-top-secret global network of hydrophones--originally designed to track the signature swish of enemy ship propellers--to eavesdrop on undersea earthquakes. In Newport, Ore., geophysicist Christopher G. Fox tunes in to the raucous clatter of underwater volcanoes off the coast of Oregon and Northern California with the same U.S. Navy network, called the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS).

At Caltech, Thomas Ahrens employs a mammoth Star Wars laser to investigate the chemistry of giant meteor impacts on ancient Earth. At the Livermore National Laboratory, research engineer Stephen Azevedo is using ultra-sensitive imaging equipment, designed to find flaws in ballistic missile interceptors, to "candle" fossilized dinosaur eggs.

Physicist Thomas M. Georges is tracking Atlantic hurricanes with a $1.5-billion early warning radar near Moscow, Me., designed originally to detect incoming Soviet bombers and cruise missiles. The Air Force spent 25 years and almost $2 billion developing the unusual "over-the-horizon" radar system, which can monitor 50 million square miles of ocean. Georges relays his minute-by-minute radar reports to the National Hurricane Center.

Marine researchers and geophysicists even are trying to claim a Navy nuclear attack submarine for use as a full-time civilian research vessel. The Navy plans to decommission its entire fleet of Sturgeon-class attack submarines in the coming decade.

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These civilian scientists, however, are uncovering a wealth of military research tools at a time when they can least afford them. For the first time in 50 years, the federal government and the scientific community it nourishes face shrinking budgets.

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