A top physicist working on the “Star Wars” defense system has quit in what scientists said Wednesday was a severe blow to the project.
Peter Hagelstein, creator of the basic theory for building an X-ray laser that is the heart of the space-based missile defense system, is leaving Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Oct. 1.
Hagelstein, who has accepted a teaching and non-military research post at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, refused to comment on his reasons for leaving Livermore, a key research facility for the defense program.
Hagelstein’s colleagues at MIT, where he received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees, said he had problems with the management style at Livermore, was troubled about working on weapons research and wanted to return to an academic environment.
Hagelstein, 32, won the Department of Energy’s top award for his work on the X-ray laser weapon in 1984. His work was the key force behind President Reagan’s call for a defensive shield against ballistic missiles.
“He’ll be missed greatly,” said Steve Maxon, a senior physicist with the laboratory’s X-ray laser program.
Scientists at the lab “already are feeling” the effects of losing Hagelstein, Maxon said.
“It will be a tremendous loss for our program,” said George Chapline, principal scientist for the X-ray laser program at Livermore. “You don’t replace a Peter Hagelstein.”
Hagelstein originally joined Livermore as a 20-year-old graduate student interested in working on an X-ray laser that could be used in a laboratory to allow doctors to view cell structures and molecules inside the body.
Richard Adler, associate head of MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science department, said working on weapons had troubled Hagelstein in the past. Adler believed, however, that Hagelstein had overcome that.
Maxon said he did not believe Hagelstein left the lab because of moral objections to working with weapons.
“I doubt very much whether that had very much to do with it,” Maxon said. “I’ve seen Peter operate on both sides, in the lab and in underground (defense) experiments, and I know he’s interested in both, regardless of what people say.