Rocket Science

Originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Rocket Science


The National Missile Defense (NMD) is the successor to President Reagan’s Star Wars initiative. The system is designed to protect us from unfriendly “rogue states” by blasting their missiles out of the sky with our missiles. The NMD should be of great interest to lawyers because if it doesn’t work, probate business may be picking up considerably in the future.

Unfortunately, despite a price tag of $60 billion, hitting “a bullet with a bullet” is proving as hard as ever. In June, the New York Times reported that NMD tests have been rigged to hide the fact that the interceptor missiles can’t distinguish decoys such as balloons from real warheads. The Times said the government is deliberately “dumbing down” future tests to increase the odds of success.

Officials deny decoy trouble, but a test in July raised eyebrows when the “kill vehicle” failed to detach from the interceptor rocket. According to a high-placed source, the kill vehicle’s fault codes were interpreted to say: “I refuse to suffer any more humiliation. I am not leaving this interceptor until you do something about those decoys.”

Now, ultra-top secret documents appearing in this month’s Los Alamos National Laboratory Tattler newsletter confirm that there are indeed bugs in the anti-missile system.

Field test #72 transcript

Defense Contractor: Direct hit!

General: Get out. We hit that missile?

DC: No sir. It appears to be a balloon.

General: Decoy?

DC: Birthday.

General: What the #$%# [redacted for national security reasons] is a birthday balloon doing in outer space?

DC: It wasn’t exactly outer space. It was at a Chuck E Cheese, somewhere in the Midwest as best we can tell.

General: I thought we dealt with the spherical decoy problem.

DC: With great success, I’d say. The interceptor hasn’t mistaken Venus for a warhead since Test #59. As for the moon, we just have to pray the enemy attacks during an eclipse.

Field test #201

DC: The interceptor has launched. This time we’ve equipped it with video so we can see how it behaves as it approaches the missile. The missile is coming into view.

General: What are all those flashing lights?

DC: Stadium scoreboards. Part of the new decoys. See how they spell out “DECOY” between “Touchdown” and “Awesome”?

General: What’s all that other stuff? Isn’t that Porky Pig?

DC: Yes sir. A float from last year’s Rose Bowl parade. We used a variety of decoys to refute critics who say the tests are unrealistic. We also launched the Statue of Liberty, some inflatable Miller-Lite cans and a couple of barns, in case someone claims we can’t hit the side of one. The kill vehicle is zeroing in. It’s going to hit the … no, the … no, the … (BIG EXPLOSION IN OUTER SPACE!)

General: Porky Pig?

DC: Reasonable mistake, general. The pig has a similar infrared signature to a Soviet SS-20 warhead, except it’s a different shape and ten thousand times bigger.

General: Another failure (sigh).

DC: To the contrary—an impressive triumph. Pig like that hits a major city, we’re talking some serious damage.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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