Overbudget, the SSC had been on shaky ground for at least a year before the plug was pulled. Design began in 1983, and then Pres. Ronald Reagan’s science advisor told the design committee to be “bold and greedy.” Reagan approved the project in 1987, encouraging physicists to “throw deep.” (Early names for the collider included the “Ronald Reagan Accelerator,” the “Desertron” (because it was so large it could only be built in the U.S. Southwest), and even the “Gippertron.”)
Originally estimated to cost $4.4 billion, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill the project in the summer of 1992, when costs had risen to $8.25 billion, but it was saved by the Senate, although a $100-million cut below requested funds put the project further behind schedule, increasing its costs even more. By the fall of 1993 the estimated cost had risen to a minimum of $11 billion (equivalent to $18 billion today), in part because administrative overhead proved larger than anticipated, and refined calculations of expected beam losses lead to a magnet redesign. (There were to be about 10,000 of them in the ring.) The latter’s increased cost, about $2 billion, could have been avoided by accepting a smaller ring and its resulting lower energy, but that idea was rejected by upper scientific and academic management.
But not all of the project’s costs were included in the initial estimates, according to a DoE report completed four years after the ax came down. About $500 million for detectors, $400 million for operations needed before the lab was finished, $60 million for land purchases and $118 million for DoE project management were excluded from cost estimates. Crucial to projects of such a size, a project cost and scheduling system was never fully implemented, concealing substantial cost overruns, according to the report.
“The Department of Energy was looking for a new level of project management when they embarked on supercollider,” says Michael Riordan, a science historian who is a lead author of the forthcoming Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider. “They did not trust they could get that from the high-energy physics community, and I think they were partially correct in that.”
Foreign funds that never came
It was always expected that $2.6 billion in funds from foreign governments and from the accelerator’s home state would supplement DoE dollars. Although Texas did promise $900 million, and deliver $400 million before the project’s cancellation, none of the seven countries that DoE officials looked to for the rest came up with money, except for a $50 million pledge from India.
From the beginning officials seemed conflicted about the project’s goals. Riordan wrote that at a 1987 press conference, the day after Reagan’s go-ahead, “Secretary of Energy John Herrington told reporters that the SSC would be ‘an American project [with] American leadership,’ but at the same time the DoE also intended ‘to seek maximum cost-sharing funding from other countries.’” Such nationalistic rhetoric tamped enthusiasm from Canada, Europe, and Japan when DoE went looking for financial pledges.
In Europe maintaining success at the CERN laboratory was the priority, after its 1983 discoveries of the W and Z bosons responsible for weak interactions, and it would have made little sense to collaborate on a machine larger than the Large Hadron Collider they were then considering. Despite the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 Russia’s focus and funds went elsewhere; the end of the Cold War also repurposed attitudes in the U.S., reducing emphasis on big, technological science projects that displayed national might. The SSC also competed for funding with the development of the International Space Station, including the Johnson Space Center and other NASA operations in Texas.