Jefferson Lab Laser Breakthrough Opens Way for Navy Funding

The powerful laser in development at Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News is not "Star Wars" technology, in either the Ronald Reagan or the George Lucas sense. It's more realistic than both the 1980s missile-defense fantasy and the 1990s (and '70s) Jedi space fantasy.

The Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser has made believers out of doubters and possibly earned itself federal funding. That could be great economic news for Newport News and Hampton Roads.

Two years ago, the Navy distanced itself from supporting the free-electron laser as a tool that could shoot down enemy missiles. Experiments in 1997 were very sketchy. With the Navy expressing doubts, it was impossible to justify a claim on millions of federal dollars to step up development.

Jefferson Lab scientists stayed focused and refined their laser.

This year, they made a convincing case that the laser is capable of disabling the homing devices of enemy missiles, knocking them harmlessly off course.

This technology isn't as dramatic as the Reagan administration's blast-them-from-the-sky Strategic Defense Initiative, which was somewhat derisively nicknamed "Star Wars" during the first round of popularity of the Hollywood space epic.

No, the free-electron laser isn't as dramatic, it's better. It appears credible.

The local scientists' breakthrough won praise from the Navy, and that gave Sen. John Warner and Rep. Herb Bateman the opening to insert millions into budget bills to expand the power of the laser 20 times.

The free-electron laser has likely uses in manufacturing, too. It's targeted for precision cutting and for altering the surfaces of materials. Eventually, its development here might spur new jobs.

The Jefferson Lab's chief aim is to understand the mystery of the smallest particles of matter. With potential new backing from Congress and the military, its laser innovation promises to be one path by which the pure science lab may boost the practical economic fortunes of our region.