Boeing’s Airborne Laser Testbed realizing a vision seen on screen 25 years ago

On February 11, aerospace giant Boeing, leading a team including Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin working for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, successfully completed the first air-to-air demonstration of the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) by destroying a missile in flight. As seen in live video, the ALTB combined a high-powered chemical laser with sophisticated optics and advanced targeting and tracking systems all carried in a specially modified 747, resulting in the ability to lock on to a target liquid-propelled missile in its boost phase and hit the target missile with a laser powerful enough to incinerate it. As remarkable as this technical achievement may be on its own, it is also a validation of a concept envisioned more than 30 years ago when the first chemical oxygen iodine laser was invented in 1977. Those of us of a certain generation may quickly recall similarities between this real-world demonstration and the plotline of the 1985 movie Real Genius, a comedy starring Val Kilmer that told the story of a group of college students at a fictional high-tech institution who despite various distractions manage to build a multi-megawatt chemical laser of exactly the same type used in the ALTB. In the movie, the students are unwittingly furnishing all the components of an airborne laser ostensibly desired by the military to allow the vaporization of virtually any target from space. Such a chemical laser has also been envisioned for possible use in space-based missile defense systems. In the film the aircraft carrying the laser is a B-1 bomber instead of a 747, but the rest of the details are remarkably similar to the actual ALTB system. We note with some irony that in a previous test of the system a ground-based target was successfully destroyed from the ALTB in flight — a scenario virtually identical to the demonstration that is planned in the movie for the laser the students have built. In retrospect, it appears the producers of the file should get some extra credit for the thoroughness of their research into the science portrayed in the film.