Video: Magnetic levitation?

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/28/2006 7:25:24 PM ET 2006-06-28T23:25:24

It's called “Project M,” for magnetic levitation, a technology conceived 10 years ago to make submarines quieter. It started out as one of thousands of routine research projects in the huge defense budget.

So how does this stuff get hidden in the budget?

“It’s hidden in the budget because they don’t want you to know about it,” says Winslow Wheeler with the Center for Defense Information.

So who wanted it?

“Certainly the contractor, Vibration And Sound Solutions Limited,” Wheeler says. “And the local congressman, Jim Moran, D-Va., a power on the Appropriations Committee, who kept pushing for it.”

But after five years of study, in 2001 the Navy decided it didn’t need the high-priced technology.

“Theoretically, you could use magnetic levitation on a submarine. In practice, though, it’s very hard, it’s very expensive,” Loren Thompson, a defense expert with Lexington Institute, says.

Still, year after year, it kept popping up.

The contractor simply repackaged it to smooth the ride on high-speed boats used by Navy SEALs, and all-terrain vehicles for the Marines. What have they produced? Some prototypes of shock-absorbing seats.

Winslow Wheeler worked on Capitol Hill for 30 years and knows his pork.

“They don’t call (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld, they don’t call the comptroller, they call the project manager level and they say, ‘Do you want this thing? Congressman Moran wants $2.5 million for the Project M,’” Wheeler says.

Total cost to taxpayers so far? $37 million.

Campaign records show that the company’s president and his wife have contributed $17,000 to Moran since the project began — all legal.

Does it surprise Wheeler to know that the contractor made campaign contributions to Moran?

“Congressman Moran would probably be horrified if he didn’t,” Wheeler says.

Moran would not agree to a formal interview but stopped briefly to defend the program.

“I went over to the lab, and I looked at it, felt it,” he says. “I could see that it was real and I think it has tremendous potential in the future.”

The contractor, who would not appear on camera, issued a statement saying, “Ultimately, it is up to the government to determine how, and whether, to use the researcher’s efforts.”

As for the company? It shut its doors last Friday to “restructure.” But it still plans to produce levitating seats — even if the military doesn't want them.

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