Star Wars architect recalls ‘Rocket Ranch’
Like many original El Dorado Hills residents Larry Bassham can put that awesome “Aerojet — It IS rocket science” bumper sticker on his car.
Bassham, who retired 10 years ago and lives with his wife Donna, worked at the “Rocket Ranch” in an atypical role. His largest contributions were in knocking missiles down rather than blowing things up, using missile technology to protect rather than destroy. He played defense in a military industrial complex designed for offense.
“Defense wins Super Bowls,” said Bassham, trotting out a tired but particularly apt metaphor, given what’s at stake when nuclear warheads are in the air. “Anyone can get lucky and score a touchdown. But you have to be real good to prevent the other guy from scoring.”
Bassham, now a sought-after consultant, was one of the architects of Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative. Critics quickly dubbed it “Star Wars.”
Missile defense history
Ronald Reagan didn’t invent missile defense. The idea has been around since Project Plato in the 1950s. Nike Ajax missile sites were strategically located around the country. Locally a launch site sat on the hill north of Highway 50 above Costco but was never armed.
President John F. Kennedy, then later Strom Thurmond proposed more advanced missile defense systems but neither could muster the political will to make the investment.
In 1970s the “Safeguard” system was close to deployment when a missile treaty shut it down. “The Russians already had 100 interceptors fully deployed around Moscow,” said Bassham, echoing his distrust of Russia’s arms treaty motivations.
In 1982 Reagan gathered missile experts from various aerospace industries to study the feasibility of shooting down incoming missiles. “He just wanted to know if it could be done and how long it would take,” said Bassham. “He didn’t want a WPA project for the missile business.”
Bassham was invited to sit on what became known as the Fletcher Commission, which concluded that strategic defense was possible, assuming emerging aerospace technologies would plug gaps in detection and response.
Based on the commission’s five-month study Reagan gave the 1983 “Star Wars” speech, where he famously beseeched the scientific community “who gave us nuclear weapons” to turn their talents to “the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
The speech, along with the Evil Empire speech, ushered in the final major escalation in Cold War rhetoric which precipitated a thawing of relations in the late-1980s and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Bassham found himself in the awkward position of having to advocate the system internally at Aerojet, but unable to discuss his role on the top-secret commission to anyone but Aerojet President Roger Ramseier.
“The Trident and a lot of other big money projects were winding down,” said Bassham. “I told him this was an important project for the future of the company and the world.”
At the time Aerojet was trying to reinvent itself as an energy company, he said, a strategy he didn’t agree with. “We were rocket guys, not energy guys.”
He was eventually allowed to present his case to resistant Aerojet department heads in a series of memorable evening meetings which culminated in an outburst. “They wanted more that I could give them,” he recalled. “The science was too new for them. It was a gamble.”
Bassham stormed out of the meeting but Ramseier stopped him and said he should get mad more often, then assured him Aerojet was about to become a defensive missile company.
“It was a bold decision,” said Bassham.
The Strategic Defense Initiative was launched in 1984. The 1985 budget was $1.6 billion. It grew in subsequent years, with Aerojet at the heart of the propulsion technology, also winning important contracts for the “kill vehicle.”
SDI later later morphed into the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, then the Missile Defense Agency.
Bassham traces his distaste for offensive missile systems to his earliest days at Aerojet.
He recalls shying away from the military programs, gravitating to equally high-profile NASA projects, working on Apollo and becoming a chief engineer for the space shuttle engines.
When NASA funding began drying up and Aerojet started downsizing, “I thought, eventually, I’m going to be out of a job.”
But rather than being laid off, the future company vice president saw his career escalate. His reputation as a slightly odd, apolitical, special projects guy who was willing to take a stand turned out to be a perfect fit for Aerojet in the 1980s.
“The defensive missile work was natural to me,” he said. “Here’s a way to protect people with the same technology that kills people in offensive weapons.”
How it works
Bassham likens missile defense to “a bullet trying to hit a bullet.” The closing velocities are around 4.7 miles per second. At that speed, the sheer impact of the “kill vehicle” and the missile leave nothing but vapor. In missile parlance, it’s called a “kinetic kill.” No explosives involved. None required.
Treaties prohibit space-based defense systems, so only land-based interceptors have been deployed. Each consists of a couple large booster rockets jettisoned once the highly maneuverable “kill vehicle” is aloft.
Ground-based interceptors are currently deployed in Alaska and at the Vandenburg Air Base in Lompoc.
The interception can be accomplished in one of three zones: the boost phase, mid course or the terminal phase. Each has its own challenges.
Boost phase. A missile launch is easy to spot from space, but ground-based interceptor missiles are typically too far away for an immediate interception.
Mid course. The missile coasts on a predictable course for 10 to 15 minutes. But with only small “thruster” rockets firing they are difficult to follow. The missile is a “dark body.” Advances in sensor technology have made mid-course interceptions not only possible, but ideal.
Terminal phase. Incoming missiles present a small, “last minute” window for interception, but there may be people beneath the interception point, which makes terminal interception an important but last choice.
Aerojet provides propulsion systems for all three phases, and also builds the kill vehicle, which contains four thruster engines that maneuver the vehicle laterally. Eight smaller thrusters handle the roll and pitch.
Response times for these high-thrust engines are in the three to four millisecond range. “That’s serious rocket science,” said Bassham, with more than a hint of pride.
A sensor in the front of the kill vehicle directs the thrusters. Early in its flight it receives its directions from earth, but once it locks onto its target it becomes autonomous so it can’t be misguided from the ground.
The navigation system triangulates off the ground plus two stars. The kill vehicle knows all the evasive maneuvers the missiles it’s chasing might deploy. “You’re in a black room chasing a black object,” said Bassham. “It’s a real chess game.”
Bassham cites a visit to Hiroshima as a turning point in his advocacy of defensive missile systems. “The photos do not capture the gravity, the immensity of it,” he said. “When you see what a 15 kiloton bomb did to Hiroshima, it becomes crystal clear that this is the wrong answer.”
Typical modern nuclear weapons can be 15 megatons or more, he said, a thousand times more devastating than what was dropped on Hiroshima.
His opinion of offensive weapons was further bolstered during three years traveling the globe as the head of Aerojet’s international operations.
“We’re not well liked out there,” he said. “They think we’re taking advantage of the rest of the world. There are a lot of countries that would love to annihilate us.”
The unraveling of the Soviet Union makes the threat even greater, he insists. Recent arms treaties frustrate him. “They can’t afford to develop defensive missile system, so they want to stop us from building them.”
The fact that Russia has missiles and needs money worries Bassham. “Who wants to buy them? Terrorists,” he said. “How long before they end up in the wrong hands?”
Bassham called Russian former president Vladmir Putin’s politics “scary,” and wonders if the U.S. can trust him not to use or sell his nukes.
The current, limited missile defense deployment is inadequate, said Bassham. “And Obama is pecking away at the program.”
“There’s a lot more we should be doing,” he explained. “It’s more important now than ever.”
What he witnessed at Hiroshima could happen anywhere, he said. “If one salvo got to the United States, everything here would be gone.”