Biographical / Historical
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), if built, would have been the world's most expensive instrument for basic science. It would have allowed physicists to study the collisions of subatomic particles in conditions approximating those of the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe. The SSC design called for a 10-foot wide tunnel to be laid out in an oval pattern similar to a racetrack, approximately 53 miles in circumference and 14 miles in diameter. The tunnel, buried several hundred feet underground, would have contained nearly 10,000 superconducting magnets. Small clusters of buildings located above the tunnel were planned to house the SSC's offices, laboratories, and control facilities. All of these structures would have made the SSC the largest particle accelerator in the world and, at an estimated cost of between $4.4 and $11.8 billion, one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken in the United States.
Physicists planned to use the SSC's superconducting magnets to accelerate two streams of protons (particles with a positive electrical charge that forming part of the nucleus of an atom) to a velocity of 20 trillion electron-volts (TeV) in opposite directions within the tunnel's parallel beam tubes. They would then deflect the two streams into each other and study the particles that were created in the resulting high-speed collisions. From these events, physicists hoped to detect particles never seen before and learn more about the composition of matter.
In January 1987, President Reagan publicly declared his support for the proposed SSC, to be built under the authority of the Department of Energy (DOE). States were invited to submit site proposals for the project, and from the twenty-five states that responded, eight finalists were selected: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
The huge scale of the SSC meant that it would have a significant environmental and cultural impact on the area selected. The SSC would, one source estimated, "require 16,000 acres of donated land, a flow of between 500 and 2,200 gallons of water a minute and up to 250-megawatts of power, as well as accessibility to a major airport, so the world's scientists can fly in and out."1
In many of the finalist states, opponents of the SSC organized and actively campaigned against the project. They raised issues such as the threat to uproot hundreds of people from their homes or create heavy tax and utility burdens. Opponents attended public hearings on SSC issues, distributed leaflets by mail and by hand, and conducted letter-writing campaigns to local politicians. In New York, Citizens Against the Collider Here (CATCH) was able to force the state to withdraw from the competition. Groups in other states learned from the New York group's experiences and used similar techniques in their own campaigns, sometimes adopting the name CATCH. As one CATCH activist recalled, "opponents were not against the SSC or basic sciences, however they did not believe that they should be forced out of their homes for the SSC."2
Supporters of the SSC, on the other hand, addressed the concerns of the citizens by writing editorials or distributing pamphlets responding to particular issues or questions. Prominent city officials and politicians traveled to the proposed sites to discuss the economic and scientific benefits of the SSC, and cities distributed bumper stickers supporting the project. Scientists rebuffed claims that the SSC would produce large amounts of deadly radioactivity and contaminate the entire area. Supporters promised that, "the SSC project would bring federal funding, international prestige, and jobs—starting with 4,500 construction jobs, and later 2,500 full-time research staff positions."3
In November 1988, the Department of Energy declared the winning site to be Ellis County, Texas, southwest of Dallas near the town of Waxahachie. Full-scale construction began three years later with the building of laboratory facilities for the design and manufacture of the SSC's superconducting magnets. Contractors began boring the main tunnel and several vertical access shafts in January 1993.
The anticipated tremendous costs that dogged the project eventually helped undermine it. In June 1992 and again in June 1993, the House voted to cancel funds for the SSC; both times, the Senate restored funding. However, in October 1993 the House rejected the Senate's second restoration, and President Clinton echoed Congress's decision to cancel further work on the SSC. The project received a small budget to support termination activities through 1996. Once the remaining projects were shut down and the scientists and staff dispersed, only several empty buildings in the rural Texas countryside, and fourteen miles of tunnel underneath it, remained of the once-ambitious facility.
At the National Museum of American History, planning for the Science in American Life exhibit—which would examine how science, technology, and American society have intersected over a hundred-year period—began in 1990, at the same time that preparations were being made in Texas to build the Super Collider. Early in the planning phases, Smithsonian curators decided to dedicate a section of the exhibit to the SSC. This section was intended to be a "work in progress" that would change over time as the collider was built, reflecting the current and ongoing debates over the massive machine.
The exhibition design called for using materials donated by both supporters and opponents of the SSC. Early in the exhibit's development the curators began contacting organizations and individuals who both supported and opposed the SSC, asking if they still had materials related to their efforts. Over a two-year period, the curators collected a wide range of items in more than twenty donations, ranging from bumper stickers, t-shirts and hats, to newspaper clippings, maps, and copies of state site proposals.
The design of the SSC portion of the Science in American Life exhibit became permanent with the closing of the SSC in late 1993. The SSC portion now focuses on the roles that special interest groups, protest, and grass-roots political campaigns play in large-scale scientific endeavors. Many of the donated items were included in the exhibit.
1 DeMott, John S. and J. Madeleine Nash, "Super Push for a Supercollider," Time, April 13, 1987, p. 19, Box 2, Folder 20.
2 "Alexander Narrative," a brief typescript history of the New York CATCH organization, Box 3, Folder 14.
3 Koszczuk, Jackie. "Anti-SSC Felling CATCH-es On Fast," Daily Star News (Fort Worth, Texas), September 17, 1988, p. 4, Box 2, Folder 5.