TCS Daily


Missile Defense Spinoffs from Outer Space

By James Pinkerton - July 16, 2001 12:00 AM

Las Vegas - One hundred and nine degrees Fahrenheit never felt so refreshing. That's because I'm here at a convention of Doctors for Defense Preparedness, a group that is so hard-nosed about its dedication to hard science that it's like a cool breeze, or a cool drink. Of course, the air conditioning inside the Sahara Hotel helps, too. And when there's positive news as well, from an important technological frontier-that is, the successful missile defense test over the Pacific on Saturday night--the whole world starts to look cooler.

Founded in 1983 as a civil defense group, DDP has expanded its portfolio to include additional issues such as global warming. Yet DDPers are skeptical on that topic, the immediate evidence of July in the Nevada desert notwithstanding; speakers at this convention included Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon, two global-warming contrarians whose work is well known to TCSers.

But on the same day that the missile test succeeded-strangely, that success didn't seem to get as much media attention as earlier failures--Dr. Robert Jastrow, the director of the Mt. Wilson Institute at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, Calif., was making an argument for National Missile Defense that is not often heard.

Harkening back to NMD's earlier name, Jastrow reminded DDPers that "the Strategic Defense Initiative has transformed astronomy," and proceeded to tell a little-told tale of coincidental technoplenty.

Most Americans know the concept of space "spinoffs," but the press lost interest in the '60s, the era of Teflon and Tang. Yet the whirl of spinoffs has never ceased; recently, Scientific American filled up a whole book, Inventions from Outer Space, with more recent examples, including portable X-ray machines, micro-pump technology, ceramic dentistry, and more efficient solar power. And, of course, there's the unsung hero of the Information Age, the communications satellite.

Jastrow, an astronomer who has been a leading figure in missile defense matters for decades, offered three more examples of the value that NMD has spun off onto his own academic discipline.

First, piezoelectrics. Piezoelectric substances, typically crystals and quartzes, can be mechanically deformed by the application of electricity. Telescope lenses, for example, can be made infinitely malleable; piezoelectricity enables computers to manipulate lenses to compensate for refractions in the atmosphere, allowing an ultra-clear picture. This acuity was a critical objective for strategic defensers as they struggled to find ways to identify incoming objects, such as missiles; the U.S. government, Jastrow said, spent about $500 million on this effort. But the costly fruits of those efforts have been declassified now, and the spinoff has given new life to terrestrial telescopes, which were once thought to be on their way to obsolescence because of increased interference in the atmosphere. Jastrow, whose Mt. Wilson Observatory is in the thick of Los Angeles "light smog," said proudly, "Mt. Wilson now produces images that are as sharp as the Hubble Space Telescope."

Second, adaptive optics. The idea here, Jastrow explained, is to use light as a tool to help see light. Does that sound counterintuitive? So are many things in science. But as DDPers like to say, the glory of the scientific method is that it is based on objectivity, not subjectivity. Objectivity offers even crackpots, or seeming crackpots, a chance to prove that their wild theory is, in fact, true. And in the case of adaptive optics (AO), the vindicated visionary was Laird Thompson of the University of Illinois. AOers started out using the light from a single bright natural star as a benchmark, to correct for atmospheric perturbations. Once again, strategic defensers jumped on the idea as yet another way to identify incomings. Now Thompson and others, riding on the cushion of intellectual capital that Uncle Sam helped pay for, are going further, using lasers as the benchmarking light source, so as to see even further into deep space.

Third, the inferometer. This is yet another astronomical technology juiced by missile money, Jastrow told his listeners. It allows scientists to get a better look at a single astronomical object through multiple telescopes, all computer calibrated for maximum resolution. Astronomers at Georgia State University, for instance, are using six telescopes spread out over a mile to get the space equivalent of a Kodak moment. Inferometers could help unravel one of the great mysteries of the universe, the formation of planets. Astronomers are looking, for example, at 3 Juno, a 200-mile-wide asteroid not far from Earth, whose name derives from its status as the third asteroid ever discovered, by the astronomer Karl Harding, back in 1804. Today's astronomers believe that planets came into being in part because they are the cumulative product of various inter-stellar collisions; they wonder whether 3 Juno is such a planet-in-progress. The inferometer is helping test this hypothesis.

But DDP isn't just about gathering ideas that the mainstream media aren't much interested in; it's about generating them, too. That's the spinoff, as it were, of this convention. For example, attendee Henry C. McKinney, a retired engineer from Gloster, Louisiana, has been noodling for decades on a rocket that would run on Helium3. The idea, as McKinney explained it, is to create a thermonuclear fusion of Helium3 plus two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, and use that for propulsion. McKinney freely concedes that the hard part is the physics causing that fusion, but it's an idea worth exploring, because if McKinney's brainchild were ever to become workable, future spaceships might travel at half the speed of light.

I came away from DDP feeling better about America, the land of the inventor, the tinkerer, the ornery cuss who won't take no for an answer. Here are a bunch of folks, almost all of whom have advanced degrees in medicine and engineering, who gather together to pursue independent lines of inquiry about everything from global warming to nuclear power to DDT. But because they are politically incorrect, they are mostly ignored by the media and opinion-leaders.

Which is unfortunate, because the unfashionable science they champion has a way of proving itself. In the last few years it's become the conventional wisdom in Washington that missile defense technology is doomed, because, in the popular cliché, "You can't hit a bullet with a bullet."

Well, the Pentagon did just that on Saturday night. A projectile, the so-called "kill vehicle," hit a dummy warhead when both were traveling at 4.5 miles per second. Not bad. And while missile defense has a long way to go, the test is a distant early warning to the establishment that the idea might work.

As for the astronomers who have been reaping the huge benefits of SDI/NMD, they are not obligated to support missile defense as a form of gratitude for the technogoodies they have received. But as a group, speaking louder than the articulate but lonely voice of Jastrow, astronomers might speak up just a bit. After all, if missile defense technology is good enough for them to use in their stargazing, it might just be good enough to use in defending America.

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