Physicist J. Richard Airey Is No Sci-Fi Buff, but His Lasers Are the Stuff Death Rays Are Made Of

updated 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

"It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently... A beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light."
—H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds, 1898

A poster bearing that quotation hangs in the Pentagon office of physicist J. Richard Airey. As head of the Directed Energy Technology Office, the quiet, British-born Airey, 39, has the task of creating real-life counterparts to the "death ray" weapons of space thrillers. They are no longer a fantasy. The Defense Department is expected this month to commission a new test-firing site for laser weapons at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Lasers are beams of highly concentrated particles of light which on impact turn into heat. Used for some time, among other functions, to cut phonograph records and make surgical incisions, the beams could also burn through a missile's guidance system or ignite the fuselage of a plane. Under ideal conditions they are accurate to within one-sixth of an inch per mile and instantaneous in effect. "You can't dodge a laser beam," says Airey. "As soon as someone presses a button the light is at the object."

Sound too easy? Indeed, because there are problems. Enemy missiles with thick or reflective coverings, for instance, could diminish laser heat damage. Exact target tracking is still to be perfected. Air pollution causes the laser to lose its focus; it will perform better in the vacuum of outer space. New "lethality verification" tests at White Sands will try to overcome some of these difficulties.

A full-scale prototype of the military laser isn't expected until 1985. But an experimental version downed an Air Force drone plane as far back as 1973. And in 1978, using a chemical-powered laser which grew out of an Airey design, the Navy stopped antitank missiles traveling at 450 mph. Technological complexity makes only large-scale laser weapons feasible; "handheld lasers to shoot people are out of the question," Airey insists, alluding to all those intergalactic shootouts. Though no science fiction fan, he took his three sons to see Star Wars. He calls it "very entertaining," but found the ship-to-ship combat unrealistic: "You wouldn't be able to see a beam in outer space until it hit a target—then you'd only see the flash."

According to U.S. military estimates, the Soviets are spending $1 billion a year on lasers, or five times what the U.S. has budgeted for this year. That may be a Pentagon exaggeration. But there is no doubt that the Soviets are aggressively working on lasers. However, Airey is not alarmed. "The Russians," he says, "invented lasers about the same time we did, 1960. But today they face the same technological problems we do."

In his native Manchester, Airey took science in high school because "at that time nuclear power and physicists were glorified in the popular press." He went on to Cambridge and the University of Toronto. In 1967 Airey produced the first working model of a high-energy chemical laser (most at that time were powered by electricity). After stints in private industry, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington and the Department of Energy, he became the Pentagon's laser overseer last year.

A U.S. citizen since 1970, Airey lives in suburban Maryland with his English-born wife, a teacher, and their sons. In an age when, as the late J. Robert Oppenheimer said, "The physicists have known sin," Airey insists he has no guilt feelings, though a friend who learned about his job recently said, "Fancy working on such a terrible thing. How do you sleep at night?"

Replies Airey: "It would be very nice if we didn't have to have any weapons whatsoever, but that's not going to happen. So we need a strong defense, and somebody has to worry about how good it is."

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