Say what you will about Boeing (NYSE:BA). Call its 747-8 freighter program a disappointment. Sigh over its serial failures to bring KC-X in for a landing. Deride the 787 "Dreamliner" as a slow-motion nightmare. Despite all the company's failings, one thing you cannot deny:

Boeing never gives up. It keeps on swinging for the fences.

Case in point: We all know how a penny-pinching Pentagon has been closing its wallet to high-tech military ventures lately. Back in April, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates threw Boeing and its partners -- Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), and Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) -- a bone when he OK'd funding to proceed on the Airborne Laser prototype. Yet Gates nixed the idea of a second plane, saying the funds were needed elsewhere.

You might have thought this would chill Boeing's enthusiasm for the idea of loading high-tech rayguns on airplanes. Not so. To the contrary, Boeing charged ahead with another idea it's been working on -- the Advanced Tactical Laser ("ATL" -- not to be confused with ABL.) And guess what?

This one's working just dandy.

Ready, aim, fire!
Over the past several months, Boeing investors have been treated to a series of increasingly bullish press releases (and some pretty cool video clips) describing the ATL's progress. The laser has moved from test firings ... to target practice on a stalled automobile ... to the successful air-to-ground damage of a moving target. Boeing is using its laser to slice and dice targets with the precision of a Jedi Knight.

According to a press release issued just yesterday, Boeing successfully fired ATL from an in-flight C-130 last month. It targeted, engaged, and burned a sizable hole in the chassis of a remotely operated automobile driving at 30 mph. (No crash test dummies were injured in the making of this movie.)

If you've seen the laser in action, it's hard not to be impressed. Unlike what you've seen in the movies -- Han Solo blasting stormtroopers with rays of blue light -- the ATL seems to work by magic. You don't see a thing happening; you notice the faint buzz of a far-off airplane, when suddenly your car bursts into flame, and in a matter of microseconds the metal just melts away, leaving a scorched hole as the only evidence that something happened. Scary.

Mission: Possible
Scary -- and exciting. ATL's results mark a big win for Boeing and partner L-3 Communications (NYSE:LLL). This proof-of-concept could be the key to securing future funding for the project and others like it. It's one small step toward rendering gunpowder a 20th century technology -- and one gigantic leap for Boeing.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.