Reagan, Star Wars, andComputing Professionals

After sputnik launched the space race and the US military-industrial complex grasped its funding came the imaginative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of Reagan’s presidency. As reported in “Way Out in the Blue” by Frances Fitzgerald, the image of a shield against enemy missiles may have arisen in Reagan’s mind at a visit to the immense underground control center of NORAD. The center’s similarity to a movie set may have generated a sense of enormous potential for intervening in human affairs. For cinema and television star Reagan, this meant a resurrection of World War II propaganda films, blending movie imagination and the weight of impending presidential responsibility.

Such imagery might have triggered more vivid aspirations in Reagan’s brain than ever imagined by the American public. Generals and technology company boards would, of course, rapidly jump to the cause while social scientists and politicians pondered the risks and costs. Whatever the origins, histories of Reagan’s presidency portray a man obsessed with his role in an apocalyptic movie, aptly parrying with Russian leaders. At least, until his mental faculties lost the sense of immediacy and human interplay that graced his earlier performances.

Movie screens aside, the SDI adventure, dubbed “Star Wars”, ran off the tracks from computing professionals who refused to profess the infallibility of their systems. Notably one maverick, Dr. David Parnas, and a collective of Professionals for Social Responsibility questioned the possibility of ever completing a testable system. “If the first real test could end the world”, then the risks and costs of such system warrants extreme caution. Political complexity arose from apposing country systems destabilized by this US SDI powerhouse.

Contrasting, more optimistic, researchers espoused that for decades the SDI would be mostly research, good for the computing field, so worthy of delaying deployment decisions.

Deborah Slaydon’s book ” Arguments That Count” describes this era as the formation of a serious software engineering profession that matured through taking on physicists seasoned from the WW II Manhattan Project era. Computer scientists were new on the block. Complex software system engineering was a nascent field. Business computing was lucrative, but nothing like controlling physical systems. These systems are time dependent, unpredictable, difficult to simulate, horrendously expensive but favorable to military-industrial fortunes.

I recall once attending some aerospace industry event on “future of software engineering”. Presentations on testing “brilliant pebbles”scared the bejeebers out of me. I faked some war-worthy comments and escaped funding partnerships. So many computer scientists have faced this dilemma of unwanted military sponsorship for work they loved.

Only now, reading up on SDI have I realize the tests are still ongoing, usually failing, but still consuming $billions. All in hope that nasty dictators, rogue terrorists, accidental button glitches, and mad men will be neutralized threats. I agree with general public sentiment.
“Hell, I’m more likely to be shot in a movie theater than to die under a missile attack”,

My main point is that SDI catalyzed computer scientists to look into the Shadow of our profession. Taking responsibility, many seized the opportunity, generating fields of software engineering, systems safety, hazard analysis, and risk assessment. And now, these fields are reborn in the context of computer security facing the overwhelming complex invisible humanistic property of privacy.


  1. Rebecca Slayton, “Arguments That Count”

  2. “Physics, computing, and missile defense” in Foreign Affairs

  3. Frances Fitzgerald “Way out There in the Blue”
  4. Debate about feasibility of SDI

  5. Volume 1 Risks Digest on SDI Debates

  6. Star Wars debates