Who’s afraid of the Superconducting Super Collider?

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The Superconducting Super Collider is rarely discussed anymore, but its ghost has haunted high energy physics for the last 16 years. Slated to begin operations in 1999 in Waxahachie, Texas, the SSC would have been nearly three times as powerful as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Had it been completed, we would probably not be waiting with bated breath for the hints of the Higgs Boson from the LHC: the Higgs and a slew of other physics would most likely be among the recent accomplishments of jubilant experimental physicists.

Alas, after ten years of planning and $2 billion in construction costs, Congress pulled the plug on the project in 1993. Today, several of the buildings and 14 miles of the planned 54-mile-long tunnel sit abandoned in the Texas desert — the tunnel intentionally filled with water in order to preserve it. Despite talk of turning the site into a mushroom farm or a data center, the site hasn’t been used for much other than a filming location for Universal Soldier: The Return, which even we aren’t curious enough to watch.

But wondering about what’s actually there, Nick and I decided to search for its remains on our way from Chicago to Los Alamos.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

Following the advice of Dr. Roy Schwitters, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin and the former director of the SSC, we started at the Ellis County courthouse, which is almost literally a gingerbread house in the town square:

The Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie, TX.

The Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie, TX.

Because we still weren’t sure where to go from there, we poked around Waxahachie and discovered the Ellis County Museum. It seemed to be an organized version of the town’s attic, full of 1920s hats, WWII paraphernalia, and century-old maps of the area. The curator, Mr. Shannon Simpson, directed me to a website where he’s collected some information about the SSC and pulled out a big picture of the tunnel taken during construction:

A photo of the partially completed SSC tunnel at the Ellis County Museum.

A photo of the partially completed SSC tunnel at the Ellis County Museum.

We also flipped through some impact reports commissioned by the DOE about historic sites in the area, which contained some pretty great maps of the SSC ring. As you can see, it would have been truly enormous. While the Tevatron and RHIC surround small wildlife preserves, the SSC would have completely surrounded the city of Waxahachie:

A map from a DOE-commissioned survey of the area surrounding the planned SSC site.

A map from a DOE-commissioned survey of the area surrounding the planned SSC site.

In fact, it wouldn’t have been much smaller than Dallas, which lies 40 minutes or so to the north:

The SSC's planned footprint would have been only slightly smaller than the city of Dallas, entirely surrounding Waxahachie. (image taken from Wikipedia)

The SSC's planned footprint would have been only slightly smaller than the city of Dallas, entirely surrounding Waxahachie. (image taken from Wikipedia)

I thought the museum would be the best surprise of the day, but our adventure was just getting started. We found the SSC buildings in the middle of nowhere — literally a vast blank on the car’s GPS — and simply drove up one of the driveways. It was shockingly hot. As we wandered around the side of a long gray building, we stuck to the shade as much as we could.

As with the other labs we visited, the Superconducting Super Collider would have had Government Vehicle parking areas. Now the rusting signs are one of the only outward indications that this could have been a DOE facility.

As with the other labs we visited, the Superconducting Super Collider would have had Government Vehicle parking areas. Now the rusting signs are one of the only outward indications that this could have been a DOE facility.

I squeezed behind a huge box of circuit breakers and found an uncovered hole. When I dropped a rock in it, it made a splash. You know what that means: it was an entrance to the now water-filled tunnel! Despite the fact that it was 102 degrees under the East Texas sun, I got chills.

A water-filled hole by the SSC, which presumably lead down into the collider tunnel itself.

A water-filled hole by the SSC, which presumably led down into the collider tunnel itself.

I was surprised how few signs of trespassing there were, considering they are weird, huge buildings in the middle of nowhere. No graffiti, hardly any litter. But a key piece of vandalism allowed us access to what appeared to be the main building in the complex. One of the many windows encompassing the building’s staircase had been punched out and covered with plywood, making it easy to pry our way in. The first floor hallways were pitch dark, which posed a particular problem because we were both wearing sunglasses.

Exploring the SSC had its challenges and creepy moments, which were exacerbated by the fact that the electricity was turned off and we were wearing sunglasses. It was hard to escape the feeling that, if there are any secret alien hideouts, this would be one of them.

Exploring the SSC had its challenges and creepy moments, which were exacerbated by the fact that the electricity was turned off and we were wearing sunglasses. It was hard to escape the feeling that, if there are any secret alien hideouts, this would be one of them.

To escape the darkeness, we headed up to the top floor where we found ourselves in a huge empty office space (luckily with lots of windows). Though the architecture was a particularly ugly brand of early-90s dressed-up-industrial, it was easy to imagine how the offices and conference rooms could have been filled with lively physics discussions.

SSC offices overlooking the bucolic Texas countryside.

SSC offices overlooking the bucolic Texas countryside.

In one of the creepiest moments of the exploration, we realized with a start that we were standing on footprints made in the dust by previous visitors. Apparently the SSC still attracts the occasional guest - though not so many that the dust gets brushed away.

In one of the creepiest moments of the exploration, we realized with a start that we were standing on footprints made in the dust by previous visitors. Apparently the SSC still attracts the occasional guest - though not so many that the dust gets brushed away.

On the other side of the building we found a hangar-sized space with one of physics’ beloved cranes installed near the ceiling. Presumably this was where parts of the accelerator and/or the detectors were assembled (or would have been assembled).

An abandoned SSC assembly building.

An abandoned SSC assembly building.

Unfortunately, as we entered the presumed assembly hall, we started hearing some ominous clanking sounds. Worried that we had either set off an alarm or disturbed the aliens living in the building, we hightailed it outside.

Even more ominously, the light posts in the parking lot were squealing and shaking violently for no reason. It sounded so weird, especially after such a surreal experience, that we had to record it:


The above recording is what it sounded like to stand on this spot.

The above recording is what it sounded like to stand on this spot.

So just as we suspected, there is a ghost lab in East Texas, complete with half empty frappuchino bottles on the counters and haunting footprints on the carpets. But why? Why was the lab abandoned? Why was so much of it built at all? What happened to the Superconducting Super Collider?

The story has never been told in its entirety. This is partly because, in the words of former Fermilab director and self-identified “funeral director of the SSC” Dr. John Peoples, “If something goes this bad, everyone has a hand in it.” When the SSC is discussed at all these days, the narrative is usually reduced to the idea that the project was so over-budget and behind schedule that Congress had no choice but to kill it. Indeed, the initial estimate for building the SSC was $5.9 billion and by the time it was cancelled, it was expected to cost at least $11 billion. But while pulling the plug on the SSC may have seemed like a smart fiscal decision to federal lawmakers in 1993, such a move would have been considered wildly irresponsible in previous decades. The reason: the Cold War.

By the time the atomic bombing of Japan ended World War II, high energy physics was already enjoying a privileged place when it came to government funded science. Just think about the Manhattan Project: the U.S. spent billions in the middle of a war to build a secret town in the mountains of New Mexico and stock it with thousands of the world’s best scientists. During the arms race in the decades that followed, investment in high energy physics research was thought to be essential to the nation’s survival. As Dr. Peoples eloquently put it, “The Cold War was really, really important for the whole idea of, I would say, Big Science that can only be justified in terms of what it does to advance knowledge.”

So it’s no surprise that when Robert Wilson asked for money to build his weird dream lab, Congress gave him 90 million dollars (about a billion dollars in today’s money) and essentially said, “If you can really spend that much money, come back later.” After relaying that anecdote, Dr. Peoples added, “That just doesn’t happen anymore.” By 1993, basic research in high energy physics was no longer viewed as a weapon — which, according to the U.S.’s guns over butter attitude, meant that it was no longer a priority.

Due to the annual nature of the U.S. appropriations system, Congress had the ability to cut off funding to the SSC when Big Science and high energy physics fell from grace. CERN, on the other hand, receives a set percentage of each member state’s GDP every year. The European lab’s eminently stable budget is certainly a reason why the LHC was completed while the SSC was scrapped as soon as funds and interest waned. But the LHC was also built using existing infrastructure: namely, the tunnel originally used for the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP). The SSC was to built on what Dr. Peoples called “a green field site,” as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get, in large part because Texas politicians wanted a National Laboratory for their state.

A lack of public relations was another factor in cancellation. As Dr. Peoples reminded us, “The DOE emerged from a secret organization, the Atomic Energy Commission. It wasn’t their bag to go around telling people what great things they were doing.” After years of conducting secret nuclear weapons tests, the DOE wasn’t eager to share its work with the public — even when that work depended on the public’s support.

Due to DOE’s lack of communication, Dr. Peoples said, the SSC and high energy physics “became too esoteric as a science for the public to relate to.” NASA’s space program, for example, romanticized a permanent foothold in space with the International Space Station (which was approved around the same time the SSC was canceled) and produced beautiful pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. But “the SSC could not make that connection to people.”

As the LHC gets up and running and plans are laid for the next generation of accelerators, how do we keep the SSC debacle from repeating itself? First and foremost, Dr. Peoples said, any future project must be international and have a guaranteed source of funding. As science historian Dan Kevles puts it in his article about the SSC, “no nation can write a blank check for science.” Kevles even reports that the U.S. seriously considered joining CERN after the SSC’s cancellation, a stunning vote of no confidence for our country’s ability to live up to our Big Science legacy, but also a possible note of stark realism.

In recent years, the high energy physics community has taken the SSC’s difficult lessons to heart. It’s hard to even conceive of a project that isn’t international these days, and communication with the outside world is going strong (as our own project should suggest). The budgets of the National Laboratories continue to be an issue, but the stimulus package provided them with a much needed boost after a few dangerously lean years. Plans for the future tend to stick with what is working now; the continued operation of the Tevatron is receiving much more money and attention than the possible plans for the next planned collider, the ILC.

But despite the shock to particle physics caused by the SSC catastrophe, there is still one comment that Dr. Peoples made that I haven’t heard anyone else dare to say: “There will be a last machine. We may be very close.” Eventually, the energy required to boost particles past the next meaningful physical threshold will be beyond humanity’s financial power to produce.

As Dr. Tom Fields of Argonne National Laboratory told us with a note of sadness, “I’m not sure that American high energy physics will ever recover the position that it should have had, had that project been completed… But it’s definitely in the past, the whole thing. And it’s hard enough for CERN to get their machine going.”

Sadly yet fittingly, someone has taken the trouble to dump an old couch in the SSC's courtyard.

Sadly yet fittingly, someone has taken the trouble to dump an old couch in the SSC's courtyard.

(Check out another suburban spelunker’s SSC adventure here.  He seems to have explored the site in 2003 and was lucky enough to get to see it with the lights on. Wired recently published some SSC pictures as well, as part of an article about the foiled plans to turn the site into a data storage center.)

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52 responses to “Who’s afraid of the Superconducting Super Collider?

  1. mohamed salah karram

    good

  2. This is great. I’m so glad you did this. And wrote about it

  3. wow. your (collective) reporting is so informative — I want to take more time and read/follow along more closely. THANKS!

  4. WOW — you are the first people in *years* to have actually visited the SSC site and told what it’s like, that i know of. i have many, many particle physicist (and other interested) friends who will very much appreciate this writeup. thx for putting the effort in. there’s much, much more i could say on all this.. but this is enough, for now. -MSSG

  5. I’ve been here. The footsteps in the fire extinguisher dust are from my friends and I actually…
    It’s pretty cool. We’ve been through all the buildings and have yet to find a real tunnel entrance…

    • Awesome! We’re including your footsteps in the article (coming out in the June issue of Symmetry).

    • That’s because you are looking around the research center, that’s not where the tunnel is. I was part of the crew installing the chill water lines. I live not too far away, it has people there from time to time, at one time wanting to use it for a new county jail. It’s still used for the county for storage.
      Your not going to just walk up to a tunnel entrance, it has access that’s still used for potential buyers and maintained.
      The research center I have always thought could be turned into a data center, but I guess the cost is too high to convert it to anything useful. It could have been a great facility for research, but leave it to the government to spend 10 billion and not complete it due to their own mismanagement.
      The code name for the tunnel was “Desertron” which was pretty cool.

  6. Now we become a scientific backwater while Obama cancels the space program and we fall behind Europe,and soon, Asia.

  7. Did you ever figure out what caused the light poles to shake like that?

    • We never did! Although I have to guess that it was an oscillation caused by the wind, they were so loud that such a simple explanation is hard to believe.

  8. Yeah, the wind probably got the poles oscillating at their harmonic frequency, which is feasible, because from the audio clip it sounds like the wind was really howling that day. I’ve always wanted to check out the remains of the SSC, but haven’t yet had the chance. Thanks for the post.

  9. Enjoyed. Thank You

  10. Can you tell me how you got out there? I would like to go explore it…

  11. It’s approximately 2 miles down Buena Vista Rd (Farm Rd 1446) in Waxahachie, TX. There’s an exit off of Hwy 35 right before the road. Turn west at the top of the bridge. If you end up in town, you went the wrong way. The complex can be seen at a distance on the right side of the road and is unmistakable once you pass it.

    For the locals: go down 77 South (Ferris Ave, then Rogers) through downtown. Turn right onto the Hwy 35 North service road. Turn left at the top of the hill. Drive 2-3 miles.

    • Yup! Here’s where it is on google maps: SSC.

      I believe there is a Sherriff’s station across the street, and of course the buildings are not necessarily structurally sound or visited frequently, so do use caution.

  12. Nick, Lizzie…

    My foot prints were among some of the ones you all discovered. I’ve been there four times over the past two years, making a road trip from Houston. Wished I had know you were going there, as I am always looking for a reason to visit the SCC.
    Just southwest of the main facility is the remains of the Linear Accelerator, much smaller but quite interesting as well.

    After reading this, I feel a need to return and explore more of the buildings.

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. I live close and have ridden my bicycle by there many, many times. Yes, when the wind blows in the right direction, the light poles oscillate and make a “humming” noise. Supposedly, the outbuilding which Max says is the remains of the Linear Accelerator, is also an entrance to the tunnel. I’ve been told there are some others if you follow the “footprint” and know where to look. I’ve also been told the streets are so wide because they were to have the ability to land small planes. The whole thing is quite interesting and considering it was dug out of the Austin Chalk, I wonder if they found any interesting fossils (or did they grind it all to dust). I’ve never been in the buildings (no desire to be convicted of criminal trespassing) but would like to visit. I keep meaning to get pictures and info to paste on Facebook but haven’t gotten around to it.

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  16. Great article. I love reading about what could have been. But to properly convey the site of the super collider, Waxahachie is no where near the desert of west Texas. Nor is it in the piney woods of east Texas. Central plains is a better description. Grassy farmland on a back road.

    • I agree, Jose c. I was wondering whether or not the author had actually been to the site, after referring to Waxahachie as being in “the Texas desert”. The SCC site is surrounded by wheat and sunflower fields.

  17. Phyllis Ann Tipton

    A classic example of waste of OUR money by Congress for which we are now suffering !

  18. Went out this AM. Great experience, thanks for the directions!

  19. KG: That’s great! Glad it’s still as we left it.

  20. Umm quick question were did you guys stash the car?

  21. The SSC’s cost grew because President Reagan’s science adviser said to make the Collider bigger. That is, after the first estimate was submitted, we were told to increase it, and after submitting it yet again,we were told to increase it again. That direction from the White House basically tripled the original investment. What put the icing on the cake was when the Reagan administration decided to call it the “Reagan Center for High Energy Physics”. Bush One lost the election and Clinton would not stand for anything named for Reagan. True story.

  22. i lived in ennis while they built the ssc long after it was closed sometime around 1999-2000 a friend and i went there at around 2:ooam we just turned onto the road went down a little ways pulled over turned the car off and got out to look at the stars (great view from there no light polution around) we sat there for less than five min and we had a state trooper pull up with his lights on! 2:00am middle of know where less than five min state trooper there!!!!! how on earth did yall get to walk around and get in the building lol!

  23. There is an Elllis County Sheriff’s sub-station across the street from the SSC, which probably explains how a State Trooper got there so fast. My question is, why are there ALWAYS chinooks flying over it? And why are the chinooks also reported being seen near a power plant on the north side of Lake Bardwell (sits above the original tunnel-to-be), and military police who will escort you away from a certain road in Rocket, Tx (also sits above the original tunnel-to-be). Is it realy a canceled science experiment, or is it a “Deep Underground Military Base”? All the military activity would suggest it is a “D.U.M.B.” Besides, how DOES the government build SECRET underground bases? They build something on top of it.

    • Nathan, that is a nice theory for a really great novel, but, if it were as you suggest, the SSC would certainly not have been cancelled. I worked there in management, I can tell you for sure that there was no US government secrecy involved. In fact, foreign governments were invited to participate, and many did. Everyone had access to everything going on. Alas, it was a VERY big science project, nothing more.

    • What road in Rocket are you talking about that you see MP escort you away from? I’m just wondering since I go through Rocket alot.

    • They are using the tunnels to test equipment used to see into caves. Yes it is a sheriff sub station across the street. My best friends family owns the property next door to the sheriffs.

  24. If the dark sunglasses were a problem, could they not have been removed?

  25. Well looks like the SSC main buildings are going to be sold again. The current owners are the J.B. Hunt corporation and now it looks like Magnablend is wanting to buy it. Magnablend is a custom chemical manufacture that is wanting to use the old SSC buildings for mixing frac chemicals for oil and gas wells. They did have a large facility in Waxahachie but on October 3rd 2011 the building caught fire and now they need a new place. I live just outside of Waxahachie and have always wanted to go inside the buildings and see what it looks like guess I better do it soon. Like the write up you posted enjoyed reading it, and no there is not any sort of secret government base around here lol.

  26. Now the chemical plant in Waxahachie that exploded and burned down last October (Magnablend) has a contract to purchase the SSC and consolidate their operations. They are finding substantial opposition from the residents nearby, understandably. I’d like to find a map of the tunnels that were completed since I live 4 miles from the site.

  27. Nice article….only pet peeves…Waxahachie is in North Central Texas…..not East Texas (that is like calling someone from the upper east side of NY a “Jersey girl”) & the SSC site called a desert, haha I have to laugh at the dramatic wording…its located about 4 mi off of a major highway & that big open area is called a field…..hardly a desert. The SSC would be a great underground living facility…IMHO.

  28. Magnablend Chemical has closed on their purchase of the SSC. Nearby residents are very concerned about air and water pollution, the huge increase in trucks on our farm roads as well as a lack of oversight from regulators since this is in the county, not the industrial area of Waxahachie. No zoning restrictions at all. See some great pictures on our website at: http://elliscountyconcernedcitizens.org/

  29. I am interested in doing a story about the SSC for a major news website. Can you send me the contact information for Dr. John Peoples?

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    commented here, I am in fact enjoying by these.

  32. Magnablend is spending $Ms getting the site ready for production. You should see it now, equipment, fencing, concrete, remodel, etc. It’s changing every day, no longer the abandoned shell it was at the beginning of the year.
    Still fighting the neighbors over being there at all. Nearby roads are being improved in anticipation of the heavy trucks.

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  38. been there many times, what scared me the most was that most computers were still onn! and working, Windows 3.1 still running with wow from what it appeared to be a massive 16MB of RAM!
    i was surprised that coffee was still there, milk in the non operating fridge, televisions and other equipment and paper work.
    frozen in time. I naturally took one tuna can with me lol , i opened it up and it was eatable! damn!

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