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The Story Of The American Supercollider That Almost Was


The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle by CERN's Large Hadron Collider made news around the world. While many people rejoiced in all the meaning and potential the discovery could have for science, for a few the excitement came coupled with bittersweet reminders of what could have been.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States embarked on a project with similar goals, but of a much grander scope.  The Superconducting Super Collider was projected to be three times the size of the Large Hadron Collider, and according to many scientists would have likely discovered the Higgs Boson a full decade earlier. For a country inclined to go for the best and biggest in so many things, what happened?

The Idea

The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was first discussed in Congress in 1982. A Department of Defense project, the SSC was sold to representatives as a symbol of the country's scientific supremacy, an argument given greater value by the Cold War still raging.

The project had enough support by the late 1980's to gain approval by Congress and enthusiastic backing by Ronald Reagan. At a cost estimate of $4.4 billion, and projected to extend over 16,000 acres of land, the SSC would be the biggest and most expensive scientific project ever.

As an added benefit, a project of such epic proportions naturally comes with an influx of economic prosperity. Jobs would be needed for researchers, for construction, and to create all the parts required. Communities across the nation, and their representatives, all vied for a part of the prize.

Waxahachie, TX won the biggest piece. With soil deemed perfect for the construction of a largely underground project, the city was chosen as the home of the SSC and brilliant physicists flocked to Texas to be a part of history.

The Project Begins

Building began in 1991. It didn't take long for a project that had fairly broad support to become controversial.  What made sense in the context of the Cold War started to seem unnecessary to many in the early 1990's when the political tide shifted away from competition with the Soviets and towards a balanced budget.

The grand experiment meant to become the great symbol of the United States' superiority in science and technology soon became instead the go-to symbol of fiscal waste for many politicians.

The scientists who had become committed to the cause of the Supercollider found themselves spending time defending the project in the political arena rather than working on completing the SSC. Between the constant budget battles, and a costly error that was discovered in the course of building, the projected costs for the project ballooned from the original $4.4 billion to $11 billion.

Without a clear, easy-to-explain benefit to taxpayers, the SSC was an increasingly convenient scapegoat in conversations about legislative pork. One politician even coined a pun that clearly communicated the public shift in perspective, calling it a "quark-barrel project."

The End

In spite of the many politicians who did come to the defense of the SSC, those who derided its increasing costs eventually won out.

Construction on the SSC ended in October of 1993, leaving a big hole in the ground and an empty facility where a wealth of scientific excitement and hope once was. Many of those brilliant scientists who had made a home in Texas made their way over to Europe to get involved with Large Hadron Collider that eventually succeeded in the discovery the Super Collider never had the chance to make.

The SSC facilities were eventually bought by a chemical blending company, Magnablend. Now practicing a wholly different sort of science in the space; they did choose to give a nod to their new home's former life, calling it the "Specialty Services Complex," or SSC, for short.

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