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I recently stumbled on the online Straight Dope and, since you seem to be the guru of all things, decided to ask a question. How many years ahead of us is DARPA, technologically, and what secrets do you think they may be hiding from us? —A curious kid

P.S. Do you think a rail gun would be a winning science fair project?

A rail gun, huh? Kid, send me your resumé when you get older. We may be able to use you on the team.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the U.S. defense department’s R & D arm. It was founded in 1958 to help the country compete in the space race after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, but its mission changed a year later when most of its space operations were spun off to form NASA.

DARPA is known for its commitment to unorthodoxy—no concept is too far out. It doesn’t run big labs but rather farms out projects to universities and private corporations.

And they’ve definitely pushed the tech envelope. The most famous DARPA brainchild is almost certainly an early computer network called ARPANET, created to facilitate collaboration among industry and university researchers. That was the beginning of the Internet. DARPA-funded researchers anticipated Google Street View by 28 years with their Aspen Movie Map, a 3-D walkthrough of Aspen, Colorado. Other DARPA research explores unintended uses for existing technology.

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While those projects were out in the open, much DARPA work understandably is done on the QT. The Sea Shadow, a radar-resistant ship that looks like a floating stealth fighter, was built in the early 80s and operated in secret till 1993. The reusable unmanned spacecraft known as the Boeing X-37—a NASA project taken over by DARPA circa 2004—was successfully launched into orbit in April.

DARPA has had its share of flops and boondoggles. The 9/11 attacks prompted a couple: (1) an Information Awareness Office, which would have snooped into everything from medical records to e-mails without a search warrant looking for terrorists, and (2) a IAO offshoot called FutureMAP, designed to harness the power of the free market to predict terrorist activity.

DARPA also spent years trying to develop a futuristic super bomb using the metal hafnium that could double as a power source for Strategic Defense Initiative lasers. Based on the irreproducible results of some Texas researchers who claimed they produced gamma rays using a dental X-ray machine and a styrofoam cup, the project was ridiculed by the scientific community as contrary to the laws of physics and wound up wasting tens of millions of dollars.

I promised I wouldn’t spill about DARPA’s most secret ongoing projects, so I’ll have to disappoint you there. But even the ones that have been made public sound like science fiction:

•Implanting circuits into beetles to remotely control them.

•Powered armor exoskeletons for infantry, as envisioned in the 1959 Robert Heinlein novel Starship Troopers, the Iron Man movies, etc.

DARPA’s 2010 budget request lists hundreds of projects totaling just over $3 billion, peanuts compared to the overall defense budget of nearly two-thirds of a trillion dollars. But cost doesn’t correlate with coolness. Take powered armor—if I weren’t on the phone all day with Orszag, BP, and those guys, I’d work on that one for free.

As to whether your rail gun would win the science fair, I’d say that would depend where you pointed it, wouldn’t you?

Credit: —Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.