In a starkly sanitized clean room, a stocky Lockheed Martin engineer wearing a shower cap and laboratory smock scuttles in and about black plastic curtains, talking with near-manic intensity and flashing his bright eyes and wry smile. "Want to see something really cool?" asks Paul Shattuck as he yanks back the curtains, revealing a maze of psychedelically colored optics and black anodized metal hardware. "This," he says, "is what they call the Wall of Fire."
The Wall of Fire, a dark, forbidding and mostly classified conglomerate of glass and high-tech hardware 12 feet long, 12 feet wide and 3 feet thick, sits in jarring contrast to the bright white blinding hues of this cavernous, four-story-high room. The contraption is like a black hole, swallowing the light and giving none of it back.
On the floor is an outline of a 747; the Wall of Fire sits poised in the cargo hold of the imaginary aircraft. The device is packed with precision-ground mirrors and lenses with anti-reflective coatings, which provide the spooky spectrum of iridescent colors that seem to shimmer with every movement of your eye. Many sections of the Wall of Fire are concealed. "Dust," the engineers lurking about say, repeatedly. Odd, given that this is a clean room. "OK," they confess, "it's covered up because of you."
But I see enough to get the point: The Wall of Fire means business. If all goes according to plan, this finely tuned apparatus, soon to be mounted behind
a fast-moving turret in the nose of a 747, will help produce a laser beam so powerful that it could destroy a missile moving at several times the speed of sound in the ascent after launch.
Shattuck directs the program at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, California, that will provide Boeing, the project leader, with the beam- and fire-control optics for the prototype YAL-1A Airborne Laser (ABL). Lasers have long been used to cut tile, correct vision, weld with extreme precision and, yes, point to things on chalkboards; except in Star Wars or Star Trek, however, no laser has ever been successfully fired in anger. But when all the components of the ABL are installed in a 747 later this year, it could become the world's first functional laser weapon-at a time when the need for such a weapon couldn't be more urgent.
With any number of rogue nations and terrorist groups developing ballistic missiles, armed with conventional explosives, such as Iraq's Scuds, or nuclear warheads, modern warfare has become treacherously unpredictable. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles, the shorter range and lower maximum altitude of intermediate-range ballistic missiles like Scuds require instant reactions if the missiles are to be destroyed. Most previous antiballistic missile systems, which usually involve firing missiles at missiles, have had limited success. They haven't been able to get close enough to the Scuds to shatter and destroy them, let alone score direct hits. Lasers, though, travel at the speed of light and can be tuned perfectly to bull's-eye a moving object hundreds of miles away. "When talking about the ability to put force on target, there is nothing faster or more precise than a laser," says Air Force Col. Ellen Pawlikowski, who heads the $1.6 billion ABL program.