From Probling The Big Bang To Dreading The Big Bust

Grabbing a white hard hat and some goggles, I hop into an elevator that jerks and clangs as it descends beneath the Texas prairie. As a stratum of whitish chalk gives way to a gray one of shale, someone jokes about the elevator breaking down and plunging this group of reporters into never-never land. I don't laugh. At the bottom of the shaft, some 250 feet down, I leave the elevator and walk down dusty stairs into the tunnel of the Superconducting Super Collider in Waxahachie, Tex. It's cool. It's dirty. It's quiet.

The small train that normally takes construction workers to the front of the tunnel is nowhere to be seen. Against one wall, a conveyor belt that carried excavated rock sits motionless. Backed by colorful charts, Thomas J. Woodall, program manager for the engineering team that oversees SSC construction, gives us a little tunnel talk: When completed, it will be 54 miles long, and so far, nearly 15 miles have been dug in record time-that sort of stuff. After the briefing I hop back in the elevator for the ascent, wondering what will become of this massive hole in the ground if the super collider is never completed.

These days, that's a real possibility. The $11 billion atom smasher's fate is in the hands of Congress, where some members look at the futuristic project and find pork, not quarks. Despite the Clinton Administration's strong support for the SSC, this summer the House voted to cancel the controversial project. The Senate's decision is imminent. But even if the Senate saves the SSC, its employees and supporters aren't out of the woods yet. Depending on funding, major job cuts and work delays could be on the horizon.

REVISING RESUMES. Under this shroud of uncertainty, the massive project in rural Ellis County has taken on a funereal air. Morale is low, and confidence has been shaken. Ask Thomas O. Bush, for example, about morale at the converted warehouse that houses part of the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory in Dallas, and he'll point to the parking lot outside. Not so long ago, when Bush would arrive for work at 7 a.m., he had to circle the lot for five minutes before finding a parking spot. Now there are plenty of spaces in the early-morning hours. And when Bush, associate director of the SSC's magnet division, leaves at 6 p.m., he's usually the last one out the door. "Everyone's putting in their eight-hour days," says Bush, "but that's it. No one feels compelled to do more."

Many employees are dusting off their resumes, while others, are moonlighting. Physicist Alan Fry left the National Laboratory for High-Energy Physics in Psukupa, Japan, to join the SSC in 1990. He has taken a part-time job as a programmer at a friend's computer-service company. Other employees have already left. SSC officials say 60 have departed in the last three months.

The uncertainty is wreaking havoc on employees' home lives. With mortgage rates at 20-year lows, scientist Philip F. Kraushaar would like to refinance his home. But he can't find a bank that will lend him the money "when they don't know if I'll have a job." Other SSCers are facing the prospect of putting their homes on a market already glutted with hundreds of others. And most SSC employees won't make any major outlays.

None of the physicists and engineers who flocked here over the past four years thought the SSC's life would prove so tenuous. Most of them gave up lucrative jobs at other research labs around the world-some as far away as the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia-to be a part of pioneering science. By smashing together beams of protons racing through the super collider's oval tunnel, scientists hope to shed light on the origins of the universe.

AN INSULT. Instead, SSC employees and supporters are getting a lesson in congressional budget-cutting. Most are angry that the government would go this far ($2 billion has already been spent) only to cancel the project. SSC officials estimate it would take four years and cost $1 billion to shut down the super collider completely. "Those who think the government is going to save a lot of money by killing the project are smoking something they shouldn't be," says Richard L. Curl, a deputy project manager.

So far, the state of Texas has spent $400 million of the $1 billion it agreed to contribute to the project. Much of that went to buying 16,800 acres of land in Ellis County. Assembling that parcel displaced 181 landowners, many of whom are bitter over being forced off their property. For them, the possible demise of the collider adds insult to injury.

Farmer Marvin Aday and his wife, Maddie, octogenarians, moved to nearby Cleburne after being forced to sell 314 acres of their Waxahachie land. "What a waste if they've taken my property and all my memories for nothing," he says. Aday says he knew the project was doomed from the start, because "they're looking for something they can't find the answers to. I think they should look to the Bible for those answers."

BOOST OR BUST? If it is completed, the super collider will encircle Waxahachie, a town of 18,000. With its ornate, 100-year-old, granite courthouse and clusters of well-preserved Victorian homes, Waxahachie looks the epitome of small-town America. It's a quaint place where the folks attend church on Sunday, shun alcohol, and dote on the high-school football team, the Indians, who are defending a state championship this year.

When the Energy Dept. decided to put the super collider here in 1988, it seemed that rural Ellis County, 35 miles south of Dallas, was in for a huge boom. That hasn't happened. The county expected the SSC to bring an influx of new residents, but just 20% of SSC employees live in Ellis County. Further, a study by the North Texas Commission, a nonprofit economic development group, shows that only a smidgen of the money spent on SSC contracts has gone to Ellis County companies.

SSC boosters counter that the collider's potential has yet to be realized. If completed, they say, 3,000 permanent jobs and numerous spin-offs will follow. Even now, the collider has boosted the local economy. Tourism and retail sales are up about 15% since the project started, says N.B. "Buck" Jordan, executive director of the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce. Glenna Rominger, owner of the 1879 Townhouse, a downtown hot spot where locals flock for the chicken-fried steak, says the super collider now accounts for about 30% of revenues at her restaurant. The BonnyNook Bed & Breakfast gets about 15% of its business from the SSC, says co-owner Bonnie Franks. And Raul Garcia credits the SSC with about 10% of his barbershop's sales.

Friends and foes of the SSC agree on one thing: They want to know where they stand. Says Jordan: "Build it or stop it. We can't go through this uncertainty every year." And if some members of Congress have their way, this will indeed be the last time the SSC's fate hangs in a balance.