The Air Force's earthbound version of Han Solo's intergalactic Millennium Falcon flew its final mission into the history books - Wednesday at Kirtland Air Force Base.
Several hundred dignitaries - including the country's earliest Star Warriors - were on hand at the base's Advanced Radiation Technology Hangar to bid farewell to the Airborne Laser Laboratory.A laser-retrofitted NKC-135 plane, the ALL is headed for museum mothballs.
Highly classified during more than a decade of experiments, the unique airborne laboratory was the air proving-ground for Star Wars-class lasers being considered Wednesday by the Strategic Defense Initiative.
According to Air Force Col. Keith Gilbert, one of the laboratory's physicists, "It is by far the most complex and successful laser weapon system ever tested. It proved the potential for fielding laser-based weapons systems on air platforms and on the ground."
ALL has reached retirement age because scientists believe they've learned all they can from it in its 13 years of use.
"On the very frontier of technology, it will continue as a guiding light for the future of laser weapons," Gilbert predicted.
With the exception of its beam-firing turret and bulky air foil, mounted atop and just behind the cockpit, the plane looks like any ordinary Air Force transport.
Inside, however, its lethal cargo stretches from a forward bay, where the dual black laser-generating engines sit, to an array of aft-bay control panels and computers. In between is the "ammo," five vatlike pressurized tanks and several smaller ones that held the gases that energized the light beam.