Russian officials have compared the country’s new defense research agency—signed into law by President Vladimir Putin this week—to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
DARPA was created in 1958 as a response to the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite into orbit the previous year, an achievement that stunned the American political and scientific establishment.
Over the next half century, the agency—often described as the Pentagon’s den of “mad scientists” for whom no idea is too fantastical—laid the framework for technologies now ubiquitous in the modern world, including the Internet and the Global Positioning System, or GPS.
But not everything DARPA touched turned to technological gold.
Scientists at the planned Russian Future Research Fund—the new agency Putin signed into law to spur defense technology breakthroughs —might want to note that DARPA researchers churned out numerous clunkers as well over the decades.
“When we fail, we fail big,” former DARP director Charles Herzfeld noted in a 1975 official history of the agency. “You could do really any damn thing you wanted, as long as it wasn't against the law or immoral."
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of DARPA’s creation, the magazine New Scientist recounted some of the agency’s greatest hits and misses, including several ideas that never made it out of the lab:
Project Orion: This scheme, which envisioned a spacecraft that would power itself by releasing nuclear bombs from its rear, was eventually shelved over fears of radioactive waste and because of the Partial Test Ban Treaty signed by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in 1963.
The mechanical elephant: DARPA scientists sought to create a “mechanical elephant” capable of navigating treacherous and dense jungle terrain during the Vietnam War. The agency’s director at the time reportedly dubbed the initiative a “damn fool” idea and ordered it to be shut down.
Psychic warfare: DARPA reportedly poured millions of dollars to match Soviet efforts to research the possible applications of telepathy and psychokinetics. The agency commissioned a 1973 report by the Rand Corporation which concluded that if “paranormal phenomena do exist, the thrust of Soviet research appears more likely to lead to explanation, control, and application than is US research.” Neither of the superpowers’ efforts appear to have borne any fruit.
DARPA is now engaged in a drive to create what it describes as “revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning, and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic network environments.”
And the US government continues to show its support for such efforts. During an era of economic turmoil and calls for austerity, the agency saw less than 0.05 percent of its $2.8 billion annual funding cut in the 2013 fiscal budget announced earlier this year.