Neil Armstrong visits LLNL to discuss magnetic fusion

In September 1981, legendary astronaut and first man on the moon Neil Armstrong visited Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the filming of a TV documentary on the U.S. fusion program. The film, "Fusion: Energy's Space Program," was produced by the Society to Advance Fusion Energy and featured Armstrong as narrator and interviewer. The intent of the film was to generate public interest in the advanced energy research programs of magnetic and laser fusion.

    At LLNL, great strides had been made in the realm of plasma physics. In 1977, the Energy Research and Development Administration (predecessor of DOE), approved $11 million for the Tandem Mirror Experiment (TMX), which promised significant performance improvements. That same year, construction also began on the Mirror Fusion Test Facility (MFTF), an advanced experimental fusion device designed to be an intermediate step between the existing mirror machines and an experimental fusion reactor.

    At the time of Armstrong's visit in 1981, there was a feeling of progress and optimism in the steps being taken towards magnetic confinement fusion. The original MFTF design had been substantially modified into a large tandem mirror configuration called MFTF-B. The scope of the project was immense, with a 58-meter-long vacuum vessel and the largest set of superconducting magnets in the world. The project and the pursuit of sustained fusion energy were among the topics broached by Armstrong with LLNL Magnetic Fusion Energy Associate Director Ken Fowler and Associate Director John Emmett of the Laser Program. 

    In addition, Armstrong also visited with Moshe Lubin at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester to discuss a path to inertial confinement fusion and continued his discussion of magnetic fusion with renowned astrophysicist and fusion pioneer Lyman Spitzer and Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Director Melvin Gottlieb.

    However, magnetic fusion research suffered a setback in the mid-1980s at LLNL. In 1986, the MFTF-B, the Lab's largest construction project ($372 million), was completed but shuttered before it was ever turned on. Lab researchers would continue other approaches to magnetic fusion with collaborative studies of tokamak performance using the DIII-D tokamak at General Atomics and the NSTX-U spherical tokamak at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

    One of the significant legacies from the MFTF program was the establishment of the nation's first unclassified national supercomputing center. When it opened at Livermore in 1974, it provided nationwide magnetic fusion researchers with pioneering remote access, data storage and retrieval and 24-hour user support. The center later became known as the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), now located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.