How Star Wars almost gave us real lasers in space

Crazy-scary weaponry and a malevolent empire threaten planetary peace and stability. No, this isn't a George Lucas film.

Jon Skillings Editorial director
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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  • 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
Jon Skillings
7 min read
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A planet faces devastation from a weapon of unspeakable power. Salvation lies in a bold plan. Someone must step forward.

It's the plot of "Star Wars," but not the one you're thinking of. The central figure isn't Luke Skywalker -- it's Ronald Reagan, president of the United States.

The US was squared off against the Soviet Union, which Reagan had dubbed "the evil empire," and the world was freaked out about the possibility of nuclear war. The plan was the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, but pretty much everyone knew it as "Star Wars." Why? Because the 40th president envisioned, among other things, lasers and particle beams blasting enemy assaults into nothingness.

Star Wars at 40

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"'Star Wars' was something people could rally around," Jason Saltoun-Ebin, editor of The Reagan Files, wrote in an email. "SDI when it was introduced, without the imagery of satellites and ballistic missiles being destroyed in space, probably would not have made much of a splash."

For the 40th anniversary of George Lucas' 1977 film, we've been looking back at the mark it left on pop culture and beyond. This story comes from the 1980s.

Cold War anxiety was at a peak. The US and the Soviet Union had been flexing and feinting for decades, with nuclear-armed missiles and B-52s held in check by an unsettling doctrine of mutually assured destruction. In the minds of many, a conflagration was only a mistake or a madman away.

At the time, the original "Star Wars" movie had huge cultural cachet, helped along by "The Return of the Jedi," the rousing conclusion to the initial Star Wars trilogy.

The franchise wasn't yet the industry it is now, but it was a bona fide phenomenon. It had captured the imagination of countless young dreamers, rebutted a generation of dark, pessimistic science fiction films and helped usher in the era of blockbuster movies.

On March 23, 1983, Reagan went on TV to rally the public around his defense budget proposal, under fire in Congress. He spoke of the need to strengthen American security after years of neglect and in the face of a Soviet arms buildup.

Late in his 30-minute, prime-time address from the Oval Office, Reagan shifted into a vision for the future, one he said would put an end to the threat of nuclear warfare. It was a plea for a world that didn't need to live in fear of missiles wreaking devastation, and it hinged on the country's scientific prowess.

"Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today," Reagan said. "Tonight ... I'm taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program."

The next day, Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of Reagan's staunchest Democratic opponents, assailed the plan as "misleading Red Scare tactics and Star Wars schemes." A few days later, Time magazine put Reagan on its cover under the headline "Defending Defense: Budget Battles and Star Wars."

Droids in the White House

It was all too tempting for pop culture. Political cartoonists depicted Reagan with R2-D2, C-3PO and Yoda, or sitting in an X-wing fighter shouting "Blast 'em!!" and "Zzzzap! Ka-zowie!!" Tom Clancy made SDI-like systems a plot point in one of his Jack Ryan novels. "Saturday Night Live" chimed in with a mock news commentator urging more, but cheaper, "fun weaponry," like Wiffle rockets. Sega created an arcade game called SDI.

After all, that was a lot easier to digest than a zillion-page federal budget or the physics behind missile trajectories and laser propagation. "Star Wars," the movie, had given Americans a vivid picture, however fantastic, of what war in our own home orbit might look like. It was a case of life trying to imitate art: If the movies can have ray guns, why can't we?

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Not everyone was a fan of Reagan's concept of weapons in space.

David J. & Janice L. Frent/Corbis via Getty Images

It was also far less frightening than the prospect of nuclear winter, a common term at the time for the devastation everyone thought might be just around the corner.

Hollywood knew what to do with that fear. In "War Games," released in June 1983, a teenage video gamer accesses a military supercomputer and almost triggers the US nuclear arsenal. In November of that year, two films -- "Testament" and "The Day After" -- took viewers to the bleak aftermath of a nuclear clash. The latter, a controversial TV movie that portrayed the devastation of Lawrence, Kansas, drew a record 100 million viewers. Dread came into the family den.

"The Day After" only added to Reagan's resolve. "It's very effective & left me greatly depressed," he wrote in his diary. "My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war."

Science fiction in real life

In its own way, though, SDI was nearly as much a fantasy as "Star Wars." Although scientists in the US and the Soviet Union had been investigating the possibility of directed-energy weapons and space-based armaments, no such thing was even close to a practical achievement. Reagan was looking ahead decades.

The idea, broadly, was this: Sensors on the ground, in the air and in orbit detect ICBM launches. Then, preferably while those missiles arc through space, the system zaps them with lasers or pummels them with interceptor missiles. Threat terminated.

Star Wars in photos: 40 years of the Force

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One of the most exotic ideas was the X-ray laser, championed by Edward Teller, who'd been a leading figure in developing the atomic bomb four decades earlier. One problem with the X-ray laser: It required a nuclear explosion of its own to generate the beam.

On a more pragmatic level, SDI gave Reagan leverage in negotiations over existing stocks of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union had to pay attention, even though it knew any "Star Wars" systems would be hideously expensive and likely to fail. The near-term threat might be nil, but Moscow respected American high tech.

"As a dream and bluff, it had a certain power," said David E. Hoffman, author of "The Dead Hand," a history of the Cold War arms race. "It had a real impact even though it wasn't a real thing."

What's in a name?

While Moscow fretted, Lucasfilm fumed.

In 1985, the company filed a lawsuit against lobbying groups using the term "Star Wars" in TV ads. It said the political controversy would give the films an association with "devastation and death from uncontrollable nuclear escalation" rather than the humor and pleasure of "imaginary battles among fantastic creatures in distant worlds." The judge dismissed the case, saying the law could not regulate "new dictionary meanings in the everyday give and take of human discourse."

Historian Frances FitzGerald says Reagan found the nickname annoying, and in his diaries the president sticks to the term SDI. (The diaries make no mention of Star Wars films, though his '80s movie viewing did include "E.T." and "Star Trek III." Of the latter, he said: "It wasn't too good.")

Science adviser George Keyworth may have captured White House sentiments in a January 1985 memo: "We all abhor the ludicrous connotation of the name 'Star Wars.' Many efforts to come up with an alternative have not been fruitful."

Beyond that, the movie's name had escaped into the wilds of popular usage. In 1983, Dale Brown was a B-52 navigator flying missions for the US Air Force, and SDI prompted him to start writing a novel that hinged on the threat of laser weapons. But tech didn't have to be that far-out to merit an association with the movie name.

"We called every new whiz-bang technology 'Star Wars'," Brown said in an email. "The Apple Macintosh was 'Star Wars.' The B-1 bomber was 'Star Wars.' The color printer was 'Star Wars.' To me and most of my fellow crewdogs, 'Star Wars' was just a metaphor for amazing new technology."

Sodium Guidestar laser at Kirtland Air Force Base.
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Sodium Guidestar laser at Kirtland Air Force Base.

The Pentagon didn't get what SDI promised, but it does have lasers aimed at space. This is the Sodium Guidestar at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Researchers have used it for real-time, high-fidelity tracking and imaging of satellites.

US Air Force

What it all led to

SDI never came close to producing the missile shield Reagan envisioned. It wasn't for lack of spending. By 1986, SDI was -- at $3 billion -- the most expensive chunk of the defense budget, with Reagan seeking to nearly double that level.

In May 1993, Bill Clinton's defense secretary declared "the end of the 'Star Wars' era." Reagan's dream of SDI morphed into the more modest reality of today's Missile Defense Agency.

Eventually, the Air Force did get something called the Airborne Laser, a single 747 packed with a chemical laser that test-flew for a few years before being shut down in 2012. More recently, laser weapons have downsized further, with solid-state or fiber-optic gear trotted out for turkey shoots at aerial drones or the engines of small boats.

But the Pentagon still looks to the heavens. "Space is a warfighting domain just like air, land and sea," an Air Force general told Breaking Defense last month.

We now know "Star Wars," the movie, as "Episode 4: A New Hope," and in a mildly cosmic way, that connects back to Reagan's 1983 speech.

"The subject I want to discuss with you -- peace and national security -- is both timely and important," Reagan said. "Timely because I've reached a decision which offers new hope for our children in the 21st century."

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