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The Superconducting Super Collider: How the USA Abandoned Its Most Expensive Science Project

BY Sonal Panse December 8, 2018
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Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) site.

Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) site. (Nick Russell / Light & Noise, Inc. / Used With Permission)

The Superconducting Super Collider was a gargantuan ring particle accelerator to facilitate high-energy proton collisions that the US government undertook to build in a massive underground complex in Waxahachie, Texas. If political and public opinions hadn’t forced the project to fold up midway, it would have been the largest accelerator in the world with the unsurpassed energy capacity of 20 trillion electron volts per proton. It is likely that, with the Superconducting Super Collider, the US scientists would have discovered the much-vaunted Higgs boson particle long before the European scientists did.

The Superconducting Super Collider

To understand what a ring particle accelerator is, we must take a look at particle physics which uses what the physicists call the Standard Model to explain the constitution of the universe. According to the Standard Model, leptons and quarks make up the observable matter in the universe and these particles act on each other due to gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong force, and weak force. The physicists developed the idea of the Higgs boson to explain a major theoretical problem in this Standard Model about how the massless leptons came to acquire mass.

To observe these particles in action, it is necessary to have them collide with one another at high speeds. Such collisions can only take place in a high energy accelerator using superconducting magnets.

Cyclotron, the world's first particle accelerator.

Cyclotron, the world’s first particle accelerator invented by Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California in 1930. (Department of Energy. Office of Public Affairs / NAID)

Building the Superconducting Super Collider

The idea of building the Superconducting Super Collider came when the USA was still at the height of its economic power and taking on the biggest, best, and most ambitious projects was a matter of national pride. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, the Cold War was over, and the USA remained as the World’s self-described sole superpower. The Reagan administration greenlighted the accelerator project in 1987 – design on the project had already begun earlier in 1983 – and encouraged the scientists and administrators involved in it to ‘be greedy’. That is, to spare no pains and costs in spending the taxpayers’ money on this massive undertaking.

The US government and the scientists all hoped that building the biggest accelerator in the world would aid them in discovering the yet undiscovered mysteries of the universe. The theory of the Higgs particle had been put forward. The physicists assumed that building the Superconducting Super Collider would lead the way in its actual discovery. It would propel the USA and US scientist to the forefront of physics, and cement the USA’s place as the most scientifically advanced nations in the world.

The Accelerator Project Start

The project began with gusto under President Ronald Reagan. Once the government and the scientists had agreed that it was to be the biggest project ever, cost no bar, the organisers looked around the country for a suitable location and zeroed on to Waxahachie in Texas. It was a charming, small town of a few thousand inhabitants, and it had the perfect geology for digging tunnels. This was a very important criterion for an underground accelerator. Another plus point was that Waxahachie also had a stable climate with no danger of any natural disasters.

Drawing of the SSC campus area.

Drawing of the SSC campus area. (U.S. Department of Energy / Flickr)

Cost Escalations

Several foreign countries had initially agreed to help finance the project, but that was under the assumption that it would be a joint international venture. The tendency of the US Americans to speak about the project as a wholly US American enterprise that would benefit US interests in the main started to put off the would-be investors. Also, the Europeans already had the CERN laboratory in Switzerland – which had helped them discover the W and Z bosons in 1983 – and they were planning to build a new accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, and it didn’t make sense for them to invest in the US American project instead of in their own.

In the end, none of the countries contributed anything. The USA tried to rope Japan in, but that plan collapsed after a trade dispute with Japan regarding selling its automobiles in the USA.

The US Department of Energy and the Texas state ended up shouldering most of the financial burden.

The initial financial estimates for the Superconducting Super Collider project amounted to $4.4 billion. According to a report that the Department of Energy published four years after the project’s shelving, this estimate failed to include several crucial costs, such as the financing required for purchasing the land for the project, for the project management, and for many other requirements. After the project was underway, the scientists decided that the ring magnet design needed an overhaul, with the addition of 10,000 magnets, and this ended up hiking costs further. In total, the project was going to need $12 billion for its completion. 

Superconducting Super Collider magnets.

Superconducting Super Collider magnets at National Museum of American History. (Ryan Somma / Flickr)

In 1992, the US House of Representatives voted against continuing the project, but, with the US Senate’s intervention, the project continued, albeit with a $100 million funding cut that had a serious impact on its construction. Costs continued to increase.

Project Abandoned

Bill Clinton, who followed George W. Bush as the President of the United States, was not particularly interested in continuing with the project. Also, the project found itself competing for funds with NASA’s space programs. Public opinion favoured space exploration over atomic exploration. The country was in a recession, moreover, and the public wasn’t enthusiastic about approving an unlimited governmental budget for science projects that didn’t offer any tangible results.

After the United States had spent $1.6 billion, with the state of Texas adding $279 million, on constructing the Superconducting Super Collider project and drilled several kilometres of tunnels and erected several buildings, constituting about 20% of the entire project, the axe fell. The US Congress decided it was no longer feasible to pour more money into the project, and the work came to a halt in October 1993.

Superconducting Super Collider tunnel under construction.

Superconducting Super Collider tunnel under construction. (US Department of Energy)

The project had engaged around 2,000 people at its building stage and the management had planned on hiring more than 13,000 people on project completion. With the ignominious end of the project, the hired personnel all departed and the new jobs, of course, never materialized. The management abandoned the buildings and the tunnels.

Superconducting Super Collider tunnel construction.

A poster of the tunnel during construction. (Nick Russell / Light & Noise, Inc. / Used With Permission)

Aftermath

A millionaire from Arkansas, Johnnie Bryan Hunt, bought the abandoned site in 2006 for $.6.5 million and planned to build a data storage centre there. Six months later, however, he died in an accident, and his family was not interested in continuing with the project.

Inside the abandoned SSC facility.

Inside the abandoned SSC facility. (Nick Russell / Light & Noise, Inc. / Used With Permission)

Then Magnablend, a chemical manufacturer, stepped in. They had a chemical factory in the area, and when a fire destroyed this factory, the company needed urgently to move to a new site. They bought the land from the Hunt family for $5 million and set up their new factory there. They had to face protests from the local farmers who were not happy to have a chemical factory smack bang in the centre of their farming community.

The main things that stand out with the abandonment of this project are the incredible mismanagement of taxpayers’ money, the lack of adequate project planning, and the ego-driven, politicized conflicts between the scientists, the US Department of Energy, and the politicians.

Instead of joining hands to build the biggest scientific marvel of our times, they ended up creating the most expensive hole in history. It was also a turning point for the USA’s scientific hegemony. With the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the Europeans beat them to discovering the Higgs particle on 4 July 2012.

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Recommended Visit:
National Museum of American History | Washington, D.C., USA


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