AUSTIN, TEXAS — THE vote in Congress to stop building the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) should be viewed as a wake-up call rather than a death knell, say supporters of the planned $8.3 billion research facility.
"I don't think it's going to close," says Joseph Weaver, an analytical engineer on the landmark science project 30 miles south of Dallas. Mr. Weaver bases his belief on experience with rumors of budget cuts during his 22 years at Lawrence Livermore, a government laboratory in California. "I've been through this before."
The House of Representatives voted last week to delete $484 million for the SSC from its $21.8 billion energy and water bill. Instead, it provided just $34 million to phase out the project. The SSC lost by 51 votes, a sharp reversal from a year earlier, when its funding passed by an 87-vote margin.
However, "it's premature to talk about the SSC in the past tense," says Vigdor Teplitz, chairman of the physics department at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. Dr. Teplitz, a specialist in high-energy theory and astrophysics, took the SMU position two years ago to gain access to the SSC.
"There are two houses of Congress," he adds, meaning that the Senate could still vote to fund the Supercollider. Then the issue would be decided in a House-Senate conference committee.
Larry Neal, a spokesman for Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, an SSC advocate, says that saving the project is "doable but uphill." The Senate's version of the energy and water bill is currently under consideration by various subcommittees and may not be ready for a vote until after the chamber's July 3-19 recess.
So far the federal government has spent $850 million on the SSC. Texas has contributed $200 million more out of a planned $1 billion, and three Texas counties another $35 million. Operational SSC facilities include a 500,000-square-foot Central Facility (office space and laboratories) and a Magnet Development Complex. Construction begins in 30 days on a linear accelerator facility. Boring of the 54-mile tunnel loop starts in August.
If completed, the SSC will be the world's largest scientific instrument. By 1999 the tunnel loop will serve as a race track to accelerate magnetically guided protons of hydrogen gas almost to the speed of light and then crash them head-on with a force of 40 trillion electron volts - 20 times greater than is possible with existing particle accelerators.
Scientists will analyze the subatomic debris for clues to the nature of the universe. The SSC will resolve matter to a billionth of a billionth of an inch and simulate the conditions that existed when the universe was less than a millionth of a billionth of a second old.
Critics have questioned whether that ability is worth the price tag - especially in the face of federal deficits and the ever-growing national debt - since physicists first proposed the Supercollider in 1982. Indeed, the House vote in part was a message of irritation aimed at Texas legislators who had just led the losing fight for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution: "If you want fiscal responsibility so much, you can do without the SSC."
Teplitz notes that never during the House debate was the SSC challenged on the basis of its technical progress or scientific rationale. Enthusiasts see the facility as a long-term commitment that will keep the United States in the forefront of high-energy physics research. The prestigious 26th International Conference on High-Energy Physics convenes in Dallas during August to get a first-hand look at the SSC facilities and future site.
"I don't know what we're going to get" out of the SSC, Weaver says. "That's kind of the neat thing about it. Maybe things we can't imagine. Maybe something that's going to change the whole world."
But with the facility's future in question, Weaver is glad that he's only on leave of absence from Lawrence Livermore. Others on the 2,000-member SSC staff have no such fallback if funding isn't renewed on Oct. 1.
Cancellation would also be a blow to Waxahachie, a farming community of 19,000 surrounded by the tunnel route. So far the SSC has definitely been a stimulus, but "not what people expect," says businessman Rex Odom. He should know; he owns a pawn shop, equipment rental store, washateria, furniture store, and extensive commercial real estate in Waxahachie. He is a director of one of the town's banks.
Mr. Odom sees most of the benefits coming in the future - if the SSC has a future. "I've thought all along that we'd have a battle each year," he says. The defeat in the House was unexpected, but "if it's killed this year, I think it will come back."
Odum adds, "I will say this: If we could balance the budget and get rid of our debt, I'd sacrifice the Supercollider. That's something we have to do."