Conceived in the 1980s as a device to accelerate particles in high-energy physics research, the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) was a political and technical hot potato from the beginning. The technical challenges associated with the SSC were daunting. Its purpose was to smash subatomic particles together at near the speed of light, which would require energy levels of 40 trillion
electron volts. Using the physics of quantum mechanics, the goal of the project was to shed light on some of the most fundamental questions about the formation of the universe. The SSC was designed to be the largest particle accelerator ever constructed, far bigger than its counterpart at Fermi Laboratory. In order to achieve these energy levels, a set of 10,000 magnets was needed. Each of the magnets, cylindrical in shape (1 foot in diameter and 57 feet long), would need to operate at peak levels if the accelerator were to achieve the necessary energy levels for proton collision. The expected price tag just for the construction of the magnets was estimated at $1.5 billion. The technical difficulties were only part of the overall scope of the project; construction of the SSC would be an undertaking of unique proportions. Scientists determined that the accelerator required a racetrack-shaped form, buried underground for easier use. The overall circumference of the planned SSC required 54 miles of tunnel to be bored 165 to 200 feet underground. The initial budget estimate for completing the project was $5 billion, and the estimated schedule would require eight years to finish the construction and technical assemblies. The SSC’s problems began almost immediately after President Reagan’s 1988 kickoff of the project. First, the public (including Congress) had little understanding of the purpose of the project. A goal as nebulous as “particle acceleration” for high-energy physics was not one easily embraced by a majority of citizens. The original operating consortium, the URA, consisted of 80 public and private American research centers and universities,
but it was expected that European and Asian scientists also would wish to conduct experiments with the SSC. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Energy hoped to offset some of the cost through other countries. While initially receptive to the idea of participating in the project, these countries became vague about their levels of contribution and the time frame for payment. Another huge problem was finding a suitable location for the site of the SSC. At its peak, work on the SSC was expected to employ 4,500 workers. Further, once in full-time operation, the SSC would require a permanent staff of 2,500 employees and an annual operating budget of $270 million. Clearly, it was to almost every state’s interest to lure the SSC. The result was a political nightmare as the National Research Council appointed a site review committee to evaluate proposals from 43 states. After making their judgments based on a series of performance and capability criteria, the committee narrowed its list to eight states. Finally, in late 1988, the contract for the SSC was awarded to Waxahachie, Texas, on a 16,000-acre tract south of Dallas. While Texas was thrilled with the award, the decision meant ruffled
feathers for a number of other states and their disappointed congressional representatives. The final problem with the SSC almost from the beginning was the mounting federal budget deficit, which caused more and more politicians to question the decision to allocate money at a time when Congress
was looking for ways to cut more than $30 billion from the budget. This concern ended up being a long-term problem, as the SSC was allocated only $100 million for 1989, less than one-third of its initial $348 million funding request. Budget battles would be a constant refrain throughout the SSC’s short life. Work proceeded slowly on the Waxahachie site throughout the early 1990s. Meanwhile, European financial support for the project was not forthcoming. The various governments privately suspected that the project would never be completed, and their fears were becoming increasingly justified as the cost of the project continued to rise. By 1993, the original $5 billion estimate had ballooned to $11 billion, and less than 20% of the construction had been completed. The process
was further slowed when Congress began investigating expenditures and determined that accounting procedures were inadequate. Clearly, control of the project’s budget and schedule had become a serious concern. In a last desperate move to save SSC funding, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary fired the URA as the prime contractor for the construction project. There was talk of replacing the URA with a proven contractor—Martin Marietta and Bechtel were the two leading candidates. By then, however, it was a case of too little, too late. Costs continued to climb, and work proceeded at such a snail’s pace that when the 1994 federal budget was put together, funding for the SSC had been removed entirely. The project was dead. The nonrecoverable costs to the U.S. taxpayer from the aborted project have been estimated at anywhere between $1 billion and $2 billion. Few questioned the government’s capability to construct such a facility. The technology, though leading-edge, had been used previously in other research laboratories. The problem was that the pro- and anti-SSC camps tended to split between proponents of pure research and those who argued, increasingly swaying political support their way, that multibillion-dollar research which had no immediate discernible impact on society was a luxury we could not afford, particularly in an era of federal budget cuts and hard choices. The SSC position was further weakened by the activities of the research consortium supervising the project, URA. Its behavior was considered increasingly arrogant by congressional oversight groups that began asking legitimate questions about expenditures and skyrocketing budget requests. In place of evidence of definable progress, the project offered only a sense of out-of-control costs and poor oversight—clearly not the message to send when American taxpayers were questioning their decision to foot a multibillion-dollar bill.18
1. Suppose you were a consultant called into the project by the federal government in 1990, when it still seemed viable. Given the start to the project, what steps would you have taken to reintroduce some positive “spin” on the Superconducting Supercollider?
2. What were the warning signs of impending failure as the project progressed? Could these signs have
been recognized so that problems could have been foreseen and addressed or, in your opinion, was
the project simply impossible to achieve? Take a position and argue its merits.
3. Search for “superconducting supercollider” on the Internet. How do the majority of stories about the project present it? Given the negative perspective, what are the top three lessons to be learned from this project?
We can do it today.