Reliable. That's what NASA claimed last year about the Titan IV rocket to be used to loft the Cassini space probe with 72.3 pounds of plutonium dioxide -- more deadly plutonium than ever put on a space device. The fiery Aug. 12 explosion on launch of an identical Titan IV rocket, following the 1993 explosion in California of yet another Titan IV rocket, gives lie to the NASA claim.
There now have been two catastrophic accidents in the 25 Titan IV launches. That's a 1-in-12 severe accident rate. Reliable? If you knew your car had a 1-in-12 likelihood of blowing up upon starting off, you would not take that ride.
It is still unclear what poisons were dispersed in the most recent explosion. Government authorities are demanding people stay away from the debris, even as they refuse to be specific about what, exactly, the debris contains. But the explosion demonstrates that opponents of the Cassini mission were right, that there was a high probability of the rocket that lofted Cassini blowing up on launch and showering Florida with plutonium.
Money is being wasted on a massive scale. Some reports price the spy satellite blasted to smithereens on Aug. 12 at $1.3 billion. The spy satellite destroyed in the 1993 Titan IV explosion at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was valued at $800 million. And then there's the cost of Lockheed Martin's Titan IV rockets.
But more important is the massive loss of life that will occur as mishaps inevitably continue in the space program if it is not de-nuclearized and de-weaponized.
Last Tuesday marked exactly one year before the day NASA intends to have Cassini conduct an extremely dangerous "flyby" of Earth, using the planet's gravity to do a "slingshot maneuver" that hopefully will speed up Cassini so it can reach its destination of Saturn. Cassini is supposed to come flying in 496 miles overhead at 42,300 miles per hour. But if there is a rocket misfire or other malfunction and the probe makes what NASA terms an "inadvertent reentry" into Earth's 75-mile-high atmosphere, it will break up and plutonium rain down, NASA admits in its "Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission." If that happens, "5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population at the time," says the statement, "could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."
A "Safety Evaluation Report" for the mission done for the White House by the U.S. government's Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel just obtained by Dr. Earl Budin, professor of radiology at UCLA, says that such a "flyby" accident would cause "several tens of thousands of latent cancer fatalities worldwide." Independent scientists say casualties could be much higher -- in the hundreds of thousands or millions.
A major effort is under way to get NASA to redirect the Cassini probe to the sun to be consumed, rather than risk such a loss of life on Earth. But if the Cassini "flyby" goes ahead and works, there is more nuclear danger ahead.
The General Accounting Office in a May 1998 report titled "Space Exploration: Power Sources for Deep Space Probes" says, "NASA is currently studying eight future space missions between 2000 and 2015 that will likely use nuclear-fueled electric generators." NASA has issued its own report saying it is considering 13 future missions involving plutonium. These nuclear shots would be launched over Florida largely using the Titan IV.
NASA began a shift to the Titan IV for its nuclear missions after the 1986 Challenger accident. The next mission of the ill-fated Challenger was to involve a plutonium-fueled space probe; if the January 1986 Challenger tragedy occurred in May 1986, when the Challenger's nuclear shot was planned, plutonium would be part of the Challenger debris that still washes up along the Florida shore.
Then there is the military connection. The 1996 Air Force report "New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century" states: "In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness." But these weapons need large amounts of power. "A natural technology to enable high power is nuclear power in space," says "Nuclear World Vistas."
That military link is a key reason why NASA insists on using nuclear power on its space probes -- even though the modest amount of electricity plutonium provides on them (745 watts to power instruments on the Cassini mission ) could be generated by safe, solar photovoltaic cells. Indeed, the European Space Agency is readying its Rosetta space probe to fly past Jupiter to rendezvous with a comet using solar energy to generate 500 watts.
NASA, after seeing its budget drop with the end of the Apollo missions to the moon, jumped into bed with the Pentagon. The Pentagon wants to use nuclear power for weapons in space and NASA wants to stay in step with the U.S. military.
The space program will involve risks; accidents will happen. But by including nuclear power and moving towards space weaponry, the risks threaten the lives of people all over the world -- and especially those on the front line in Florida.
Grossman is author of "The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat to Our Planet" (Common Courage Press, 1997). To get active, contact the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, (352) 337-9274); Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice, (352) 468-3295, or the Stop Cassini Earth Flyby website.