I’ve been reading a lot of juicy stories about completely crazed projects recently, so I’d like to pass some on. These were projects that made sense to someone at the time, but were really awful ideas, ones that you can be glad you were never involved with. They should really be called Mad Engineering instead of Mad Science, but unfortunately that evokes images of angry guys with pocket protectors. They call them Rocket Scientists after all, because that’s cooler than Rocket Engineers.
So let me set a few qualification rules up front. A Mad Science project has to be:
- Dangerous – Otherwise we don’t care.
- Stupid – ’cause that’s what makes them mad. It clearly wasn’t stupid to the people involved, but everything looks sensible if you work on it for long enough.
- Actually done, not just proposed. The Orion fission-bomb-propelled spaceship would certainly qualify, but was sadly and fortunately never built.
- Unfamiliar, at least to me. Well-known stories, like the Babylon Gun that Gerald Bull was building for Saddam Hussein before he (Bull) was assassinated, are already well described.
That said, let me start with a story from Atomic Adventures (2017) by James Mahaffey. He was a nuclear physicist at Georgia Tech, and has been putting down lots of great stuff in a series of recent books. This particular device wasn’t nuclear, but was an actual laser pistol that the Soviets built to defend their space stations against attacks by the US Space Shuttle:
It was first revealed in English by English Russia in 2013, but Mahaffey gives a much more detailed description.
The Soviets have always armed their cosmonauts, starting with a pistol that Yuri Gagarin carried. Somehow the NRA has never done the same to Americans – the most they ever carried were knives. The Soviets said that the guns were in case a capsule landed in a wolf-filled wilderness. Wolves do actually roam the lonely steppes of Kazahkstan, where the capsules land, and are even used to guard villages there, so maybe that was a legitimate worry.
By the time of the Mir space station in the 1980s, they were getting worried about the US Space Shuttle. This was the era of the belligerent Ronald Reagan, who actually did arm mercenaries to attack Soviet clients in Nicaragua and Angola. What could they do if he decided to take over Mir? You sure don’t want use a gun in orbit, since that can open you to vacuum and knock you about with the recoil.
A laser would be perfect, but they’re too bulky. The solution was to use several meters of optical fiber as the lasing medium. They wound it into a spool inside the barrel, and the end came out the muzzle. The laser was pumped by a flash bulb in the middle of the spool. The bulb was filled with zirconium metal in pure oxygen, so the whole thing would work in a vacuum for EVA fights. Old-fashioned flash bulbs used magnesium, but zirconium gives three times as much light per weight, and its spectrum can be tuned to match the resonant wavelength of the fiber optic. The bulb was ignited by a tungsten-rhenium wire coated with pyrotechnic paste. It was set off by a voltage from a piezoelectric crystal when it was hit by the gun’s hammer. A magazine carried 8 flash bulbs, so you just ejected one to use the next. They were also apparently working on a revolver variant that could probably fire faster.
So why was this stupid? Because you can’t really put out much energy this way. It’s unlikely that you could even hole someone’s suit, especially if it was reflective. Maybe you could blind them, but helmets are mirrored too. Lasers just aren’t that efficient in converting their input energy into a destructive output, unlike guns. There have been a number of laser weapon projects, and they’ve almost all been cancelled for being too energy-hungry, big, and expensive. The only one left is the HELLADS anti-missile system, and after 10 years of work it’s just getting field trials now, 30 years after this work.
The Soviet effort stopped when the country did in 1989. The Russians ultimately invited the Americans onto Mir, and they’ve been a prime contributor to the International Space Station. Space piracy just isn’t a concern any more. But even when it had been, a cutlass would have been a lot more effective weapon than a raygun. As much as we love the idea of blasters, sometimes the old ways are the best.