Date: Wed, 08 Sep 2004 12:41:22 -0700
From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Who would have THUNK! it?
September 8th, 2004
STATEMENT FROM THE EDITOR OF THE "STOP CASSINI" NEWSLETTER, REGARDING NASA'S LOSS OF THEIR GENESIS SPACE PROBE THIS MORNING
For Immediate Release
Contact: Russell Hoffman <email@example.com>
This morning's demise at the culmination of NASA's $260 million, 3-year mission GENESIS points to many things that are wrong with NASA. This was one of those things they set us all up to watch and they blew it. Aren't we getting a little tired of seeing those stunned silences at JPL or Houston? (To me, their wild cheering seems inappropriate too, as when their radiation-laden Mars probes successfully landed after so many prior failures over the years.)
The GENESIS failure aired live on many stations, and some commentators seemed no smarter than the dirt it eventually smashed into. "Yes, I think that's the main chute deploying right now" one commentator was saying, as we watched the probe clearly tumbling, tumbling, tumbling.
On another station, a talking head said we were expecting spectacular photos of a successful stunt, but all they got was a space probe smashing into the ground.
I'd say that was pretty spectacular, actually!
What was supposed to happen was that a helicopter (or its backup -- they planned for THAT) was supposed to pluck GENESIS out of the sky as it fell -- but with a parachute to slow it down and give them something soft to grab onto, using a hook dangling from the helicopter. The parachute never deployed and the probe went THUNK into the Utah desert instead.
Why does all this matter to you? Well, in 1995 NASA released a "Final" Environmental Impact Statement about the Cassini mission, in which they admitted (in techno-Greek) that in a reentry accident, at least 1/3 of Cassini's plutonium payload was likely to disperse. In the 1997 Supplemental EIS, NASA changed the figure to around 1% of the total, which everyone was much more comfortable with (although, in fact, it was still a lot of plutonium).
What changed their minds? A very careful study of their documentation revealed that the only thing that changed was that NASA decided the probe would tumble a certain way, and not some other random way, which would miraculously protect all three "RTGs" (Radioactive Thermoelectric Generators) on board, although the 130 "RHUs" (Radioactive Heater Units) would have been destroyed, hence the 1% loss.
GENESIS was designed to come back in a controlled fashion. It was designed to enter the atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour and slow down under control, and release a parachute and be snagged by the helicopters. Well, they hit a snag alright!
Cassini was NEVER designed to fly through the air without a rocket body around it on the way out, where it only attained a relatively few thousand miles per hour before leaving the atmosphere forever (if all goes according to plan). During the earth flyby it would have reentered not at 25,000 miles per hour but at 43,000 miles per hour -- and heat friction due to the atmosphere increases with the cube of the speed, so that's a huge difference.
The only reasonable conclusion is that NASA's Supplemental EIS was a work of fiction designed to throw off the legitimate criticisms of the mission, mislead the public, and allow the continued use of radioactive materials in space.
As far as I know, GENESIS, fortunately, did not carry any plutonium on board, and the people who went near it after it plunked into the earth did not wear protective breathing apparatus, so this was just another example -- but a very public one -- of NASA's inability to complete its missions.
When the next rocket is Prometheus or some other radioactive payload, remember GENESIS. Remember Columbia. Remember Challenger. Remember Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Remember all the astronauts who have died of illnesses commonly linked to radiation exposure. Should we stop exploring space? No. Should we do it with an honest eye towards the possibility of failure? Yes.
Remember: Statistics rules no matter what anyone says.