At noon on a cool, high-desert day, the azure New Mexican sky hangs languidly over a low, antediluvian landscape. To the east, the granite of the Sandia Mountains glowers darkly; to the north, the hills past the Rio Grande shimmer as they rise to the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos beyond.
Such is the vista from Tech Area 3, one corner of the US Department of Energy's sprawling Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia is a vast place - 27.8 square miles on the southeast edge of Albuquerque, described, because of its nuts-and-bolts orientation, as the engineering playground of American Big Science. If this is so, then Tech Area 3 is Sandia's sandbox. Distributed haphazardly over many miles of scrubland are the gargantuan tools that for the last 45 years have gauged the efficacy of America's war- and space-related technology.
There are the two massive centrifuges big enough to spin multi-ton satellites up to 356 mph, squeezing their components under the enormous gravity loads encountered during space launch. There is a 20-story guy-wire-supported tower, from which nuclear weapon containers can be dropped onto concrete pads - to test how well they will survive. Lapping serenely nearby is a 50-foot-deep, artificial lake into which missile parts are flung - to test how well they will recover from impact. Several miles to the north is a skeletal, roller-coaster-sized assembly - used to harden airplanes like Air Force One against nuclear electromagnetic pulses. Slung between two mountains, in a canyon to the east, is a mile-long gondola - anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are fired at it. And nearby is one of the world's largest solar arrays (each of its 222 heliostats holds 25 four-foot-by-four-foot mirrors on motorised pedestals) - when focused at the top of a nearby 200-foot tower, it can burn a hole through a half-inch aluminium plate in 20 seconds.
But today, activity in Tech Area 3 buzzes around the 10,000-foot-long rocket-sled test track. Anti-tank warheads, nuclear shipping casks, missile parts, and a rocket-assisted locomotive have all been shot down its narrow-gauge steel rails. But the mother of all tests was the one involving an F4 Phantom jet: 35 rockets sent it hurtling into a concrete slab at 475 mph. This last experiment was to see whether a proposed Japanese nuclear power plant could withstand the impact of a crazed kamikaze-piloted aircraft; its spectacular result, according to laconic 35-year Sandia veteran Bill Kampfe, was "pretty damn small pieces."
Kampfe and other technicians have been up since early morning, getting ready to test the survivability of the small nuclear reactor designed for the Cassini Saturn space probe, whose launch is scheduled for late 1996. Scientists from Sandia's sister facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory, have been up since late last night, heating the reactor's core to 1,250 degrees Celsius - the temperature at which the plutonium power source will run.
Today's test uses depleted uranium (rather than plutonium) and only one short segment of the track. Two Mighty Mouse rockets, 2.75 inches in diameter, will blast the reactor container into a concrete slab at a leisurely 170 mph. To ensure an accurate rendition of a launch-pad disaster, the sled's concrete target has been cut from an actual pad at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
At two minutes to firing, a countdown is announced. The now-glowing reactor core is lowered automatically from its oven into a container atop the rocket sled, then rotated to a horizontal position. At the south end of the track, near the impact site, scientists in a bunker monitor closed-circuit televisions, making sure that the payload, laser trackers, and 10,000-frames-per-second cameras are primed. Other technicians, in a reinforced bunker to the north, stand ready to halt the countdown if anything goes haywire. At over US$1 million (£650,000) a test, the economy-conscious Sandians take as few chances as possible.
The rocket ignites, the roar shaking the air for miles around. White smoke and a gout of orange flame shoot out the back in a stream of fire. For 1.5 seconds, the sled screeches down its steel path, then smashes into a steel plate, ejecting the radioactive canister through an 18-square-inch steel aperture. One millisecond later, the projectile slams into its concrete target. The crash - its roar, smoke, and fire - is captured by video cameras amid dozens of high-intensity flashbulbs.
Kampfe and colleagues hurry to the impact site with Geiger counters, searching for released radioactivity. After snuffing the fires smouldering around the still red-hot core, they cordon off the area. Not till morning will they begin their nuclear autopsy.
Compared with the 4,000-mph smashups that were weekly fare during Tech Area 3's heyday, the Cassini reactor test is a small one. In this lean post-Cold War era, the track is used maybe a dozen times a year, forcing Kampfe and his team (who wistfully murmur about "the enjoyable times") to contend with bureaucratic cost-accounting procedures like reducing floor space.
Meanwhile, Kampfe and these other Sandia veterans labour amid eerie reminders of the golden years of American Big Science: the dozen rusting corpses of M47 battle tanks surrounding the rocket-sled-track impact zone. In more halcyon days, these were the targets for a multiple-warhead anti-armour self-foraging projectile. Today, they sit silent and decrepit. The slim, courtly Kampfe says sadly, "We just don't have the money to move them."
The derelict tanks seem an apt, if mournful, metaphor for the current crisis of worth and mission that is settling on America's national labs. The ruins also signal a dwindling American commitment to public scientific research. As many Sandians will lament over the next few days of interviews, this abandonment - by politicians and the public - continues to accelerate despite the fact that, over the last few decades, technology developed at national labs has rekindled the US economy again and again.
"This is not the '50s"Graceful for a big man, Sandia's 10th president, Albert Narath, glides into the oddly shaped pastel-and-glass, brick-walled waiting room of the labs' executive suite. The imposing Narath, 62, greets his staff with a hint of an accent - he came to the US from Germany in his youth. As Narath proceeds back to his office, there is no mistaking his fatigue: he has just come from Washington, DC, where he is spending much of his time debating the future of America's national labs.
Since 1989, Narath has headed the Department of Energy institution whose primary mission is to assure the safety and reliability of America's 20,000-plus nuclear weapons. Running Sandia is a big job for the former research scientist: Sandia's New Mexico operation comprises five areas containing more than 800 buildings - 5.4 million square feet of research and office space for more than 7,500 employees. (In addition, Sandia also operates Sandia National Laboratories/California in Livermore.)
Narath came to this position via Bell Laboratories, whose owner (AT&T) managed Sandia from 1949 until 1993, when the Martin Marietta Corporation took over direction of the labs' $1.4 billion (£1 billion) annual budget for a $10 million (£6.6 million) yearly fee. That changeover, together with the March 1995 merger between Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta, has made Narath a lame duck twice over. But Narath hangs tough, using the considerable force of his personality and his deep roots in national labs culture to guide Sandia through some of the most troubled times in its history. (At press time, he had been promoted to president of Lockheed Martin's Energy and Environment sector.)
A strong believer in "a bigger R&D environment" for the US, Narath is troubled by the consequences of gutting a system he believes has guaranteed America's technological preeminence. But he is also a realist who understands that much of the push for American public science came out of the Cold War. He doubts, as he suggests, that the US "would have had a vigorous space programme or a moon landing without a strong obsession not to fall behind the Soviet Union."
But Al Narath is no unrepentant Cold Warrior longing for the moral certitude derived from fighting a definitive foe. Acknowledging that nuclear weapons research and development have been on the decline since the mid-1960s, he does not bemoan the fact: Narath recognises that "this is not the '50s, with each military service clamouring for nuclear weapons." Having spent five years during the divestiture and streamlining at the Bell Labs in the mid-1980s, Narath returned to Sandia - he spent much of his early career there - as president with a firm private-sector orientation. He also returned firmly believing "the time has come for Sandia and other national labs to become less entitlement-oriented and quicker on their feet."
The need for change notwithstanding, Narath takes pride in Sandia's gravest mission - its role as what he calls "the conscience" of the nuclear weapons programme. The labs' legacy, Narath suggests without irony, is that by assuring bombs will explode reliably and with apocalyptic result, the level of dread has been raised high enough to preclude the use in anger of one single nuclear weapon in the last 50 years. "The fear factor," he says quite bluntly about the prospect of nuclear annihilation, "makes leaders more thoughtful about global conflict."
Yet it is Narath, the defender of the historic balance of nuclear terror, who is today the primary defender of a grand balancing act between thermonuclear swords and microelectric ploughshares - on the one hand assuring the US nuclear deterrent and on the other providing a technological boost to American industry, computer sciences, and the environment. Narath's strategy is both controversial and, he maintains, critical to Sandia's continued success. It amounts to a sleight of hand in which Sandia scientists do double duty: they perform their government-chartered weapons work while simultaneously soliciting outside grants, forming industrial alliances, and working those business connections.
"It's a shifting balance," says Narath, describing the mix of the military and the civilian, a concoction he traces to the early 1970s, when "the weapons budget became inadequate to support a broad array of necessary research." Since that time, Sandia and the 11 other Department of Energy national labs have jumped into commercial work with a vengeance.
By 1994, a General Accounting Office report showed that 52.4 per cent of the national labs' $3.9 billion (£2.6 billion) R&D budget was related to work in commercial sectors. But with the demise of the Cold War and the current federal crisis in mind, Narath confesses great uncertainty about the future of this civilian-related work.
Though he has the support of Hazel O'Leary, Secretary of the Department of Energy (she calls Sandia a "powerhouse of scientific and technical excellence"), even the secretary concedes the threat posed by the new Congress: "In its zeal to cut federal spending, Congress is slashing R&D programmes that are vital for future economic growth, enhanced environmental quality, new energy sources and continued US leadership," O'Leary told Wired. "The DOE labs are the envy of the world - with their outstanding record of scientific accomplishments, Nobel prizes, and technical distinctions - [but] these labs may experience widespread layoffs and facility shutdowns ... amounting to unilateral disarmament in the global competition for economic vitality."
Such seeming support at the Cabinet level may not be enough to counterbalance less promising signs elsewhere in the federal government. Among other things, Narath must contend with two major government reports released in the last year which question the need for the "dual use" roles of the national laboratories. The so-called Galvin report, headed by Motorola Executive Committee Chair Robert Galvin, assessed the current environment in which national laboratories, universities, and private industry compete for the same shrinking pot of R&D dollars. While the report concedes that the national laboratories have "clear areas of expertise," it also suggests they should nevertheless be "limited to their tradi-tional mission."
"The report urged us to shrink our horizons," Narath says of the document he interprets as saying "Get back in your box and slim down to fit the size of that box." He frowns for a second as he sits at his presidential-sized desk, contemplating the Sandian landscape outside his window. Its vastness seems a comforting, but illusory, deterrent against the effort of critics to rein in, rather than harness, the labs' technological prowess.
Loss of little scienceIt is only days after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, and as we approach the gated security entrance to Tech Area 1, a grim-faced guard stops me and my Sandia escort, Chris Miller. "You didn't read the rules," he says, motioning me to take off my badge and hand it to him. "I have to touch it," he says stiffly, touching it and letting us pass. Inside the secured area, we proceed past Sandia's ancient steel wind tunnel and, after a five-minute walk, enter Building 880, a 1950s institutional special fronted by an arid stone garden.
Exploring a series of concentric corridors, we finally reach the office of planetary scientist David Crawford, who is hunched over his Sun Sparcstation 20. "I'm trying to get a grant proposal out," Crawford says, sounding put-out by the need to solicit research funds - a new and unpleasant task for many of the scientists at Sandia. Disappearing momentarily, he returns with Mark Boslough, his partner on a project that modelled the impact of a comet, Shoemaker-Levy 9, on Jupiter's atmosphere.
The July 1994 Shoemaker-Levy 9 collision was an astronomical opportunity as rare as cosmic hen's teeth; Crawford and Boslough spent nearly a year gathering and analysing data, looking "for evidence of a shock wave before the main fireball." Their odyssey began one morning in June 1993, when Boslough brought to work an Albuquerque Journal article that first suggested the comet might hit Jupiter. He and his shock-wave-analysis colleagues had studied the impact of high-velocity projectiles as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the project dubbed Star Wars; they immediately zeroed in on the similar physics of a comet crashing into Jupiter.
The events on Jupiter also related to research both men were working on - analyzing the impact of prehistoric comets on Earth. "We'd rather observe something happening now than something 65 million years ago," Crawford explains.
As Shoemaker-Levy 9 verged ever closer to Jupiter, several more Sandians joined the project. They worked out various physics and chemistry problems and helped create a network that drew data from the Galileo spacecraft (working its way towards Jupiter), from the newly mended Hubble space telescope, and from observatories around the world.
With six months to go, the two men began running simulations on Sandia's Intel Paragon massively parallel-processing computer, one of the world's fastest. Transforming pressure, density, and temperature fields into a series of two-dimensional slices, they made predictions about the comet's effect on the Jovian atmosphere and the ways its still-mysterious composition might be revealed by the flash and shock waves following impact. "Some simulations took a week to do," notes Crawford. "We used more than 600 Mbytes for each."
It's not hard to imagine Boslough and Crawford as collaborators: both thirtysomethings, they dress similarly in chinos, work shirts, and running shoes. They complete each others' sentences, particularly as they grow excited describing the increasing odds that Shoemaker-Levy 9 would provide a light show of Jovian proportion. The week before impact, they loaded up on small telescopes, packed their bags, and headed for Maui, one of the finest terrestrial viewing spots. Boslough described the increasing pitch of that week: "days on e-mail and nights on the telescopes."
The collision was a washout on Maui: a hurricane made viewing virtually impossible. But data coming in from all over the world and from the Hubble telescope and Galileo excited them beyond comparison.
Early data enabled Boslough and Crawford to estimate the size of the fragments: the biggest was nearly 2 kilometres across, and the power of the blast reached around 1 million megatons, dozens of times the power of the nuclear arsenal on Earth. In the months that followed, data poured in, leading to more refined simulations, a massive increase in knowledge about Jupiter's atmosphere, and a new insight into planetary comet impacts.
But even with some of the most exciting astronomical data in history, a sense of incompletion and concern still hovers over the project. Grants to cover the costs of the research are short-term at best. "There's more work for the next five to ten years, and we're proposing to work on it for two," Boslough sourly notes about the unsure process of gaining research money in the post-Cold War era. Recent Congressional cutbacks of NASA's budget have not improved their chances.
According to both men, the current budget-slashing mania in Washington has changed both the mode and tenor of work at Sandia. "When I got here in 1983, you never had to write a proposal for outside funding," says Boslough.
This and other changes at Sandia, they feel, have already had a profound effect. "Ten to twelve years ago, there was more of a sense of permanence, more security, less urgency in justifying research," Boslough suggests. "Without that security, there's little willingness to try new things."
But this is hardly the most troubling issue facing America's national labs. Today's balancing act between Big Science (in Sandia's case, the stewardship of America's nuclear arsenal) and little science (personal enterprise projects like the look at Shoemaker-Levy 9) may soon come entirely unhinged.
Boslough fears that little science will end up the loser, with Big Science getting the lion's share of the diminished spoils. While unbridled curiosity was once the energiser driving all scientific inquiry, Boslough now worries that curiosity-driven science will soon be marginalised, viewed only as a luxury. Crawford echoes his partner's concern, wondering if "there is still room for little science at the national labs."
New alliancesIf Boslough and Crawford seem nostalgically fixed on Sandia's past, Pace VanDevender is firmly fixed on its future. A self-admitted baby boomer, the 47-year-old VanDevender, director of the National Industrial Alliances Center, came to the labs during the downsizing of the early '70s in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. Sandia along with other Department of Energy labs were, paradoxically, flush with major funding for programmes to find alternative energy sources.
One of the most exciting of those sources was nuclear fusion, which, at that time, held the promise of unlimited and clean power. VanDevender came to Sandia driven "by visions of those promises." One testament to this vision's prematurity is a 50-foot hub outside VanDevender's office - with its radiating spokes, it is more reminiscent of a Hindu fertility symbol than the centre of a dismantled particle-beam fusion accelerator, which it is. VanDevender shrugs off the fact that pilots from nearby Kirtland Air Force Base use this icon of a failed vision of the future as a marker for takeoffs. "Every culture needs its history," he laughs.
VanDevender's reincarnation in the more prosaic world of industrial alliances came about when, during his tenure as director of Sandia's Pulsed Power Sciences Center, he realised that "if we ever wanted to achieve fusion for the masses, we first needed a suitable industrial base."
Unlike the work on fusion, however, these later efforts have begun to bear fruit. VanDevender is particularly giddy about a recent industrial alliance with Disney's Buena Vista division. The joint effort has already led to several technology exchanges, including one that might at first blush seem like - well, a Disney interpretation of Sandia's original explosive mission. As every American child knows, nights at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are lit by huge fireworks displays. With 200,000 explosive components used yearly, VanDevender explains, Disney has an insatiable need for safe, reliable, and precisely timed explosives. Sandia helped out by providing a prototype semiconductor bridge to replace the electrically heated metal wires that traditionally fused fireworks. "The energy required to form plasma is one-tenth that of a bridge wire, and it ignites 100 times faster," VanDevender explains in what I began to recognise as Sandian quantum leap jargon. "The mechanism is on a chip," he adds. "It puts smarts into the process."
The fireworks fuse, VanDevender explains, is the beginning of an alliance with Disney - and a prototype for other potential business relationships. Following an initial exchange of ideas, half a dozen Disney executives flew out to Sandia, where they discussed projects and, according to VanDevender, "saw some of our awesome technology."
"We showed them photovoltaics, wind turbines, and materials work," VanDevender says, adding that the latter puts particle-beam technology to work creating corrosion-resistant surfaces, useful for the metal components of the many amusement-park rides that inevitably rust in Florida's damp climate.
For VanDevender, the Disney arrangement is just one of the shotgun marriages that pair Sandia with, for example, The National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (formed to develop America's nascent flat-panel-display industry) and companies like 3M, DuPont, and Black & Decker, who are trying to further the industrial use of ion beams in the process called "quantum manufacturing."
One aspect of the Disney alliance may, however, prove difficult to duplicate anywhere else. It's a display currently being prepared for Disney World's Epcot, a testbed for some of Sandia's neater stuff which, VanDevender believes, can be "a showcase to the future of what Sandia technologies can do for the public."
Stewards of the futureIf Disneyland is where the national labs can confidently continue to dazzle, the Department of Energy's National Atomic Museum is a sober reminder of some of its darker promises.
The museum's home, several hundred yards south of Sandia's visitor reception center, is a handsome one-story building that would stand out even if it weren't for the B-52 Stratofortress and B-29 Superfortress bombers parked outside. Close by are other implements of the nuclear age: Honest John, Bomarc, Poseidon, and Matador guided missiles, for example, and, occasionally, a Hawk anti-aircraft battery. Oh yes - and the strange, 54-foot-long submarine-like bomb and fuel pod from a B-58 Hustler.
If the outdoor display of the National Atomic Museum is every boy's aerospace wet dream, the exhibition inside the museum would chill even the most sanguine military buff. Here, a copy of the cigar-shaped fission bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, dubbed Little Boy, shares billing with the bulbous, mustard-yellow casing of Fat Man, the plutonium-implosion bomb that levelled Nagasaki three days later. Further inside the main exhibit hall sit the externals of scores of atomic and thermonuclear devices that have served as America's first line of nuclear deterrence, despite innocuous-sounding names like Mark-6, Lulu, and Mark-28.
Here - along with artifacts from the first Trinity explosion; with bomb-drop parachutes; with two bombs "lost" off Palomares, Spain, in the early 1960s; and with a "cookie cutter" nose for the Hotpoint, an atomic-bomb-on-a-stick that was improbably designed to impale itself upright on an airport runway before obliterating the tarmac, the airport, and the surrounding city - there is enough potential megatonneage on display to blast most of the world back into the Dark Ages. But the chilling sense of doom seems lost on the happy Albuquerque schoolchildren here on a field trip to what is, after all, the local museum.
Sandia's nuclear mission can be lost on any visitor, especially given the distracting civilian-friendly technologies now being pushed as its alternative future. But that nuclear mission is never far from the surface. Indeed, towards the end of our interview in his corner office of the defense programmes building, Roger Hagengruber, vice president for Sandia's defense programmes, takes a clear Lucite cube off a shelf. Embedded inside is another smaller red cube, a representation of 10-3, one-thousandth of the total volume. Just visible is a tiny red dot - 10-6, one-millionth of the cube's mass. Not visible to the naked eye, but there nevertheless, Hagengruber assures me, is a red corpuscle-sized dot that represents 10-9, one-billionth of the cube. It is this last infinitesimal speck that depicts the ideal of surety invested in Sandia's oversight of America's protean nuclear arsenal. There is, according to Hagengruber, only "a one in a billion chance" of a weapon exploding accidentally. It is also, he suggests, "a reminder of the ethos, conscience, and steward-ship" of the Sandia Labs.
Whatever marvellous life-enhancing technology Sandia offers, and there is much, Hagengruber reiterates that first and foremost, "We're weaponisation engineers." The Sandia ethos is rooted in the Manhattan Project and the early post-World War II years, when the labs' mission developed in parallel with America's nuclear arsenal.
In 1945, Sandia was initially chartered as "Z Division," which was the engineering section of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bombs were designed. Kirtland Air Force Base, near Albuquerque, became the place where gizmos dreamed up by the Los Alamos brain trust would be manufactured. For the last 45 years, Kirtland and Sandia have coexisted on the same site.
Following the end of World War II, the crucial strategic decision was made to demobilise one of the largest armed forces in history and place America's Cold War security eggs into a nuclear basket. The decision that lent the underpinnings to Sandia's mission, Hagengruber suggests, "was a low-cost, high-performance answer to the Soviet threat."
America's earliest nukes were huge and unwieldy devices - bulky, complicated, and armed by laboratory technicians on the way to target. But the hair-trigger approach of the atomic age made "instant retaliation" and "mutually assured destruction" terrifying watchwords of an era. Thus, the balance between readiness and safety became the province of the facility that in 1949 was renamed the Sandia National Laboratories.
Simply put, once the awful decision to use nuclear weapons was made, "the gravity, the uniqueness of the situation, meant that confidence in the weapon can never be anything less than 100 per cent," Hagengruber says. Throughout the '50s, Sandia's task was to make sure that an ever larger and more sophisticated array of bombs always worked.
By the early 1960s, thanks in part to Sandia laboratories' engineering, the size and reliability of nuclear weapons had made it possible - and thus, in the Strangelovian world of doomsday weapons, inevitable - for front-line short-range missiles and even artillery shells to carry them. It became clear that without sophisticated communications, interlocking safeguards, unbreakable codes, and a reliable command-and-control structure, terrorists or even disaffected soldiers could snatch and arm a nuke. It became the responsibility of Sandia scientists, Hagengruber says, "to seek through technical means and operational procedures, the highest level of safety and security for nuclear weapons."
Over the years, Sandia's expertise grew in a number of disparate, though bomb-related fields: manufacturing, microelectronics, photonics, robotics, materials and computer sciences, encryption, nuclear physics, and so on. And the Sandia Way became associated, as one scientist suggested, "with engineering from the atomic level up."
By the late '60s and early '70s, a dramatic slowing in government funding for weapons-related R&D made Sandia's body count drop and led to attempts to diversify into work involving more energy, the environment, and, ironically, arms control.
The Reagan administration caused an uptick in Star Wars research at Sandia, and during the Persian Gulf War, a number of Sandia scientists perfected the military science that helped baffle the Iraqis. Over the last two decades, however, overall spending on America's atomic stockpile has dropped dramatically.
Hagengruber greets the downsizing with bittersweet emotions. "As we approached the end of the 1980s, no one looked at it with anything but pleasure," he remembers. "We don't work on nuclear weapons because we love them."
Nonetheless, defunding nuclear weapons and other research programmes presented a quandary. "It's hard," Hagengruber says about staffing levels, "to go from ten to three people and maintain any level of expertise." So, Sandia adopted its new philosophy: to apply the labs' research brainpower to an array of civilian applications, both as a way to defray costs and to "keep the team together."
Hagengruber's preferred area had long been nuclear nonproliferation. Ironically, as the Cold War wound down, he found himself more and more involved with his Russian counterparts. Collaborating with the people he had once worked to annihilate, he was now helping to ratchet down the threat of an accidental nuclear exchange, to assure that Russian weapons were indeed secure, as Russians themselves were dismantling and spiriting the weapons out of parts of the former Soviet Union.
But the tall, thoughtful Hagengruber has few illusions about future relations with Russia or the fading away of nuclear weapons. "The window may be open at its maximum now," he says. "But we have to make sure it doesn't close to the extent it did in the past."
This past makes one thing a matter of faith at Sandia: the peculiar expertise of the labs will be necessary for a long time to come. "You can't store nuclear weapons in bunkers and seal the doors," Hagengruber notes. "Weapons age; we know they do." At the same time that Sandia maintains its expertise, Hagengruber hopes the labs can help spark a badly needed industrial renaissance in the US, one that can "reassure economic vitality and competition." It has happened before: in the early '60s, the development of the laminar flow clean room at Sandia for the sanitary manufacture of microprocessors triggered the production of electronic components. That development, of course, ended up changing everything.
Despite Hagengruber's confidence in Sandia's enduring national role, Big Science may not be out of jeopardy any more than little science and new commercial ventures at the labs. Neither the fate of nuclear weapons nor Sandia's part in that equation will resolve itself any time soon. First, there are the Congressional budget cutters who greet arguments about the enduring importance of government-funded science with tin ears.
And then there is a world uncertain about what to call the next era of global history. The sciences at Sandia have become inextricably bound together: if national pressure to downsize all federal programmes causes Sandia to languish, all the sciences practiced there will suffer together as a consequence.
"Enduring policies have not had a chance to be formed yet," Hagengruber suggests, leaning slowly back in his chair to contemplate a future he and many other Sandians believe to be too potentially dangerous without the presence of a nuclear deterrent. "It will take a few presidents to establish the next 30-year trend," he says finally.
In the southeast corner of Tech Area 1, Sandia's Microelectronics Development Laboratory, is an ultramodern facility with a curved maroon-and-grey fascia above the entrance, and 22 huge, maroon-painted pipes set between wings in the building's inner core. They look like the manifold pipes on the world's biggest hot rod.
But they are actually part of a serious filtration system designed to circulate air through one of the world's finest clean-room spaces. For the past several decades, Sandia has been at the forefront of microcircuit technology, developing innovations in both microchip design and fabrication. Paul McWhorter, manager of integrated micromechanics, microsensors, and complimentary metal oxide semiconductor technologies, meets us at the entrance. He asks us to pass our shoes under a rotating brush. "It's a free shoeshine," the nattily dressed McWhorter says, with a laugh that betrays an accent hinting of West Texas. Then he leads us through a corridor looking into one of several microelectronic clean rooms.
Inside one of them, a woman in a 2001 spacesuit carries a box of silicon microchip wafers from one manufacturing station to another. McWhorter explains that she is removing the chips from the machine that deposits photosensitive material on the wafers. This develops their fantastically tiny and elaborate circuitry, etched out by plasma using the lithographic mask as a die to cut patterns of half-micron-wide wires or conductors; through these channels electrons will pass on their appointed computing rounds.
Further into the building, we enter another lab, where a television monitor is connected to a camera aimed into a microscope. Onscreen are two eerie fuchsia, blue, and green assemblies, with hundreds of tiny fingers vibrating back and forth. Each unit is attached to drive linkages, and those in turn are connected to a single gear driving a wheel. It looks like the drive wheel of a locomotive, except that each of the fingers in the electrostatic drive is less than half the size of a red blood cell and the wheel, as if part of the world's smallest train set, is turning at more than 300,000 rpm.
Welcome to the infinitesimal world of micromachines - MEMS, as they are known - where physical laws are turned upside down and an entire mechanism can fit easily on the head of a pin. McWhorter spearheads a team of researchers trying to find ways to use and improve the manufacture of micromachines, which are etched out of silicon in the same way as microcircuits.
MEMS have been around for a decade now, and Sandia is at work trying to take them out of the "gee whiz" stage: "It's easy to get motion," McWhorter says, pointing to the screen. "We're interested in getting them to do work instead of just sitting and flapping." Until recently, part of the problem was that photolithography could create a micromachine only one level deep. As any watchmaker will tell you, gears, bearings, drives, and flywheels have to be constructed in a number of different planes to accomplish something mechanically useful. According to McWhorter, Sandia's latest breakthrough is to "go from a single structure to three mechanical levels deep."
He tells me this as we approach another microscope to look at Sandia's latest micromachine. Calling it "the world's smallest steam engine," McWhorter explains how a tiny element heats water molecules drawn into a chamber by capillary action and turns them to steam, which is then used to push a piston "with the power of 1,000 electrostatic fingers. We've got the basic building blocks down," McWhorter says. "Now we can sit down with people and with a framework to design real structures."
Sandia has already produced micromachine sensors for various chemicals. And because micromachines and microcircuits are produced by the same process, it is possible to combine both on a single chip, producing, according to McWhorter, "not just a sensor, but a whole rack of equipment - heaters, thermometers, analogue controls, converters, and communications, all on a chip slightly larger than the size of a grain of rice."
Not only are these "microlabs" smaller than anything that was imaginable a few years ago, but they can be fabricated 1,000 to the silicon wafer. "They cost 10 times less, they're 10 times faster, and they're 10 times more sensitive," McWhorter says about these micromachine sensors, already being used in a number of real-world applications, including the Delta Clipper, one of NASA's experimental spacecraft. "It's an order of magnitude improvement."
McWhorter believes that micromachines are today where microchips were two decades ago. "When the microcircuit first started, people didn't dream of how much impact it would have," he tells me. "Today, people are just beginning to dream of applications for micromachines."
Some of the fantasies include free-ranging microrobots cruising through the bloodstream, reporting on conditions, and making repairs on a cellular level as well as microfactories creating entire tool chests of micromachines. But that is for some future micro-Henry Ford; McWhorter and his staff of a dozen are working on the nearer term: accelerometers for automobile air bags, commercial pressure sensors, microlocks for critical assemblies like nuclear weapons, and telecommunications applications such as micromotors that precisely position small mirrors and align fibre optics. The more detailed micromachines, however, must wait for the fulfillment of the Holy Micrograil: going the next several levels of complexity, and, as McWhorter puts it, "making the structures come out of the silicon wafers, so we'll be able to create the harder tool sets."
When the Berlin Wall came down, I had been here three weeks," says Arlan Andrews, manager of Advanced Manufacturing Initiatives. "I understood there was no future in weapons production." The bearded, brush-cut Andrews, who writes science fiction for magazines like Analog and Amazing Stories in his spare time, guides me and my escort, Chris Miller, into the Rapid Prototyping Laboratory, where Sandia scientists are working to short-circuit the time it takes to move a piece of hardware from design to the manufacturing stage. Manufacturing has always been high on the list of Sandia's skills, because, as Andrews explains, "We have to build a lot of parts."
As an example, he cites the B 83 thermonuclear bomb and its "6,519 parts: 3,922 of them Sandia builds, and 2,378 Sandia specifies." Asked why the lab fabricates so many of its own parts in-house, Andrews retorts with a laugh: "There are some things we don't want other people to know how to build." In a world of potential nuclear blackmail, it's a point well taken.
It has been a longtime dream at Sandia to replace the often weeks- or months-long process of building prototypes by hand - or as Andrews describes it, "bringing in the engineers, designing a part, and fabricating it in a single day." But that is only a start. Andrews envisions a new revolution in manufacturing, a process that not only allows near-instantaneous design and prototyping, but also, he suggests, enables an engineer to "push a button that says 'hard copy' and produce a product in minutes." More than a notion for Analog, the idea of rapid prototyping and manufacture - or "gear from goop," as Andrews delightfully calls it - is quite literally taking shape in the Rapid Prototyping Laboratory.
Andrews introduces me to Brian Pardo, a muscular young man with glasses and a luxuriant bandito moustache. A lab machinist, Pardo is working on a Sinterstation 2000, a dumpster-sized machine that takes triangulated CAD files, slices the object's representation into one-five-thousandth of an inch horizontal cross-sections, and then "sinters," or bonds, each layer with a laser that melts a loose polycarbonate powder into a solid. The Sinterstation builds up these forms slowly, at three-eighths of an inch per hour, but as I watch, I can see the part - a nose cone, in this case - vaguely taking shape in the white primordial powder.
Across the room is a large stereolithographic machine that produces gear from goop by dipping a stainless steel platform into a vat of resin, each cross-section cured by an ultraviolet light playing in complex patterns underneath the surface, its fast-moving green light look-ing like a proto-industrial glowworm at work. Like the Sinterstation's handiwork, the stereolithograph's form must be taken to a casting room, where it is used to make a mould into which molten metal is poured. It is not quite "direct to metal," Andrews admits, "but it is still faster and cheaper than prototyping by hand."
A table in the corner of the lab is piled high with objects shaped by the two processes; Andrews picks one up and brings it over. It is a cube built inside a hollow sphere with small vents, like a geometric boat in a bottle. "This is what I like," Andrews chuckles. "Things that can't be built any other way."
One of Andrews's research labs is also working on several new processes that are designed to go from CAD directly to metal. One uses polymer-coated metal powder, with the polymer acting as a temporary adhesive as the part can be put directly into a furnace, burning away to leave a porous, but nearly completed, metal cast. The other is a device which would simply spray patterns of powdered metal that would then be fused in flight by a laser aimed at the aerosol stream.
Arlan Andrews's imagination is playing even further out in the scientific aerosol. He paints a picture of every home equipped with a gear-from-goop "Mr. Factory" next to a personal computer. "You could turn a new generation of hackers loose: imagine what they could build!" Andrews fantasises.
Then he hesitates for a second, adding, "I hope they don't build zip guns."
hard Rapaport is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Creve Maples shows how VR can be used to move beyond cognitive learning.
"I hate the term 'virtual reality,'" says Creve Maples, the developer of MuSE, Sandia's multisensory, 3-D learning engine. "It has no definition anyone can agree on." Maples prefers his own term - anthropo-cybersynchronicity - "the coming together of human and machine."
The amiable, hyperkinetic Maples, who looks like the Burl Ives of cyberspace, is as close as Sandia has to a media superstar. MuSE, aside from being one of the greatest light shows in the history of computing, may in fact advance the vastly overhyped realm of VR.
We are inside a hot, windowless computer room at Sandia Labs' Advanced Manufacturing Facility, ready to view a demonstration of MuSE - short for Multidimensional User-oriented Synthetic Environment - which Maples's oversized personality transforms into a spectacle somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and Fantastic Voyage. The room is equipped with a big-screen television, a video projector, and a computer monitor connected to a Silicon Graphics Onyx workstation, at which sits one of Maples's assistants. The latter fiddles with the computer, waiting for Maples to commence. Maples launches in, expressing disdain for all current human/computer interfaces. "The keyboard is an attempt to adapt people to computers, not vice versa," he insists. "Pull-down menus are only a little more humanistic."
MuSE's breakthrough, Maples explains, pertains to the subcognitive ways people take in information, including pattern recognition, trend analysis, and anomaly detection. "The disadvantage of cognitive learning is that it is linear and sequential," Maples suggests. "Experiential learning is delightfully parallel." By contrast, Maples says, in real life "we take in vast amounts of sensory information and absorb only 1 per cent of it." MuSE, he adds, is constructed around the fact that "what that 1 per cent is constantly changes."
With its ability to vary stimuli in tactile ways, MuSE helps the mind unconsciously sort through the dross of vast amounts of sensory input and pull out the nuggets. "For 100,000 years, nature gave you a great kinesthetic sense; you didn't think about a problem, you lived through it," Maples postulates. MuSE, he suggests, "is a means of travelling through any space and providing sensory tools to interact with that space."
"If we're successful," he adds, moving over to the television to demonstrate MuSE, "the computer will vanish, the screen will disappear, and you will live in a rich information world."
Maples's assistant, Craig Peterson, turns the system on. A representation of Earth appears on the television, and Maples instructs Peterson to "turn time on." Peterson fiddles with a cursor and onscreen dials, and Earth begins to rotate. "Fly around Earth to the dark side and fly back into the day."
Peterson accomplishes this with a complicated series of cursor movements, but Maples stops him midflight. "This is the best way to do things today," he huffs. "People think it's incredibly advanced, but you have to locate the cursor. It's hard to find: your eyes have to drop down to a button, then move the cursor - and meanwhile, you're doing no useful work."
Maples suggests that one of the reasons even a "drag and drop" Macintosh-style operating system could never be used to, say, operate a car is that "reading and visualisation take place in exactly the same part of the brain." To perform the virtually automatic elements of driving, like steering and braking, you would have to take your mind, if not your eyes, off the road to find the right drag-and-drop sequence.
Maples has a better idea; he instructs his assistant to "transfer visual displays to head tracking." When Peterson puts on his VR headset, he demonstrates how easy it is to fly around onscreen by moving his head in various attitudes. "Virtual reality is not a gimmick," Maples tells me with certitude. "It's crucial; it frees the visual centres of the mind." He pauses for effect. "Now he can fly around Earth." Indeed, Peterson is swooping into and out of various orbits, with archangel-like facility.
Maples begins to add functionality to MuSE: "How would you like to drive an invisible car?" he asks. My vertiginous feeling of drifting in space is alleviated when Maples issues the command "Display craft." MuSE's synthesised voice, which had already been turned on, responds in a nasal, strangely Midwestern whine, "Craft displayed."
There is now a prowlike apparition visible onscreen that shows where the virtual craft is headed. He adds another element to the mix: "Let's enable audio spectrum," he says, and I begin to perceive velocity changes by the craft through a motorlike hum that gets higher in pitch the faster the craft moves. "You know what you're hearing and I haven't told you anything," enthuses Maples. "What you're hearing is data."
Now Maples asks his assistant to fly around the moon. Lost in undefined space, this is no easy task. It is simplified, however, with the addition of a navigational map on the ship's "wall," which is apparent when Peterson turns his head in the appropriate direction. "Lock onto the moon, follow it around," Maples commands, and the craft becomes a satellite of Earth's satellite. It seems an enchanting game, indeed.
"You ain't seen nothing yet!" Maples says, upping the ante. "Now we're going to stop playing." For the next hour, MuSE runs through a series of practical, yet amazing, multisensory exercises. Its implications for manufacturing, medicine, and learning couldn't be clearer. The first is a fairly simple computer-aided-design simulation involving a copper tube and a steel plate. "We needed to weld the pipe to the plate and deform it for better thermal transfer," Maples explains. "A smart Sandia engineer decided to use an explosive charge inside the copper pipe."
Microsecond by microsecond, we live through the detonation as the monitor displays the explosion flowering, its force expanding the copper pipe and welding it to the steel. Next, Maples instructs MuSE to clear the pipe and detach it from the plate.
The sequence is repeated with the dynamics of each element displayed separately. Isolated by itself, the steel shows a deformation that was not previously apparent. "With MuSE, it took four minutes to invalidate three months of work - and the engineers weren't even looking for it," Maples says triumphantly.
And how did they see things they didn't even know existed? Maples answers his own rhetorical query: "It's the nature of the mind to spot anomalies and then ask questions."
The next exercise involves flying the MuSE craft inside a three-dimensional MRI of a human brain invaded by a tumour. "We fly in," Maples commands. To the sound of MuSE's accelerating craft is added another sound, the heartbeat of the patient, its pitch changing with the varying systolic pressure. "We're not asking the mind to quantitatively analyse the data," Maples explains, suggesting that an operating surgeon could easily keep track of abrupt changes in heartbeat and blood pressure simply with MuSE's sound cues.
At Maples's command, MuSE directs the tumour out of the brain. Such a trick would enable a doctor to practice "virtual surgery" - getting to know the area of the brain on which he or she was about to operate before cutting into the patient. During the operation, a surgeon could use half-silvered glasses and see a colour, full-scale representation of the tumour to be excised, clearly differentiated from the delicate surrounding tissue.
Maples passes out 3-D glasses for his piece de resistance, a gorgeous scale model of our solar system. It is logarithmically transformed: planets and moons too tiny to be seen in true scale are visible wheeling through their correct orbits. Once elusive facts - for example, that the Uranian system is perpendicular to the orbit of every other planet - are plain as the nose on your face.
MuSE is providing me with what is without a doubt the most complete and satisfying view of the solar system ever conceived; for once, VR's genial hype understates the power of the images. MuSE flies through the magnetosphere of Jupiter and the pitch rises again, giving an aural clue to the increased attraction. Then MuSE flies farther out into the solar system and locks onto Cordelia, the innermost moon of Uranus.
"It's a speed demon," Maples warns about the rapturous vision that takes us wheeling around the huge blue planet at warp speed, our senses fully engaged in the learning process. Here, indeed, is the music of the spheres made tangible, Holst's "The Planets" brought to life.
"Gentlemen," Maples says with a grandiosity that matches the sheer exquisiteness of the visualisation, if not the size of the audience, "here is the greatest astronomy tool that's ever been. Welcome to the logarithmic universe!"