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