Soviet scientists will arrive in Orange County this month to visit a sensitive "Star Wars" test facility near San Clemente for an unprecedented briefing on the controversial space-based defense program, military officials said Tuesday.
"We hope that the visit will lead to Soviet understanding and eventual acceptance of U.S. proposals . . . for regular and reciprocal visits to (space defense) laboratories" in both countries, the Pentagon said in a prepared statement.
Soviet delegates to space arms control talks in Geneva officially accepted the 2-month-old invitation last Friday, said Lt. Col. Alan R. Freitag, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.
The SDI program, better known as "Star Wars," is intended eventually to provide a partial shield against an incoming ballistic missile attack with a network of space-based lasers, particle beams and other high-technology weaponry.
In addition to visiting the Orange County test site, the Soviet delegation will tour a second SDI research facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Freitag said.
"I can say with authority that we have never (before) entertained Soviet visitors at SDI research facilities," he noted.
Details of the visit still are being worked out in Geneva, and a firm date for the trip has not been set, but both sides have agreed that it will take place this month, according to a U.S. State Department official who asked not to be named.
The United States expects that the Soviets will send a delegation of about 20 to 30 scientists and technicians and that the visit will last about a week, the official said.
"We're spring-loaded," said Freitag. "We have been preparing for a visit, so we can make this happen whenever they tell us they're coming."
Several officials said the visit will be strictly business. "There are no extracurricular activities planned," one official said.
According to the Pentagon statement, "One purpose of this initiative is to demonstrate further U.S. openness and build confidence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by allowing the Soviets to learn more about U.S. SDI research and by reducing the risk of future technological surprise."
The visit also could serve as a model for future visits by U.S. scientists to Soviet test sites, the statement added.
The Orange County research facility, operated by TRW Inc., is on a 2,000-acre site on Avenida Pico just outside San Clemente, inland from Interstate 5. It is formally known as the TRW Capistrano Test Site, although technically its grounds are on unincorporated county land.
Established about 20 years ago, the facility largely has been used to test satellite antennas, TRW spokeswoman Montye C. Male said.
Under a $200-million contract with the government, TRW also uses the site to test a potent chemical laser, known as the "alpha laser," for use in the SDI program.
Currently in the early stages of development, the laser eventually will be enlarged and installed on a space-based platform to test its ability to both detect and destroy incoming missiles armed with nuclear warheads, Freitag said. Such tests are planned for the middle to late 1990s, he said.
As originally proposed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1983, SDI would have shielded the nation with an impenetrable shield of space-based defenses.
In recent months, however, members of the Bush Administration have significantly lowered official expectations for the program. Officials now acknowledge that SDI would offer only partial protection against incoming missiles.