Cassini: An In-Depth Look

by Russell D. Hoffman Copyright (c) January 30th, 1997

Note: This article is also available in German, thanks to the translation efforts of Marcus Hammerschmitt.

In October, 1997 NASA plans to launch a space probe called Cassini, which will contain 72.3 pounds of deadly Plutonium 238. This is more plutonium than any country has ever tried to launch before.

NASA virtually denies the existence of any health risk from exposure to low-level plutonium. Yet they base their opinions on studies that are so far out of date as to be laughable (if it didn't lead to such serious consequences)!

NASA bases much of their information on studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over 50 years ago! The existence of a hazard from low-level radiation wasn't even suspected then! But now, we have new data. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and numerous other more recent and much better-studied events than the confused aftermath of World War II have occurred. These unfortunate "experiments" have proven unequivocally the deadly hazard of low levels of radiation poisoning -- even, as the expression goes, vanishingly small levels of radiation. Clear statistical studies have proven time and again that there is no known minimum lethal dose from plutonium. Studies in Kiev and in Greece after Chernobyl. Studies of children living near reprocessing plants in France. Studies in Scandinavia. And in the United States after Three Mile Island. Extremely low levels of radiation are still hazardous and when large populations are exposed, large numbers of cancers result.

I'm not saying there is no minimum lethal dose. There may be a minimum lethal dose. What I am saying, is we have not found it. Try as we might (and the nuclear industry has tried pretty hard!) we have not been able to establish any minimum lethal dose! Plutonium appears to be potentially deadly in any quantity! This is important, because it means that when you spread plutonium around, even in very minute quantities throughout the world, health effects will occur.

Who Says?

NASA says. NASA claims that if a catastrophic accident occurred and the Cassini probe incinerated in the atmosphere it could cause 2,300 deaths over a 50 year period. Their exact wording, however, is telling. They appear somehow comforted by the fact that these deaths would be hard to find. They say the deaths will be: "...statistically indistinguishable from the normally occurring cancer fatalities among the world's population". But all this means is that you would not be able to calculate which cancer deaths occurred because of their little science experiment! No-fault insurance because you can't prove it was them. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Not by a long shot.

And besides that...

After Chernobyl, many people insisted, especially in the nuclear power industry, that only a few hundred deaths occurred. Then, a few thousand. Then ten thousand, tops. Now, few dispute that it is probably already above 50,000 people and is likely to climb to over 100,000 before... before what? In the next 1000 centuries Chernobyl will have lost barely 25% of its radioactivity. The 100,000 deaths are calculated among those who received a significant exposure from the initial explosion and fiery release, and from subsequent wind and weather patterns that blew the radioactivity their way. Not one person in California who might have breathed in some radioactive dust and gotten lung cancer is ever counted. They are just too hard to find. But they are there, and when you add up all the places as populated as California all around the world, even 100,000 total deaths may be a low estimate.

In the case of Chernobyl, subsequent accidents from the still-smoldering site will undoubtedly kill millions more for thousands of years. The "dead zone" around Chernobyl is growing larger, and many feel that within a few centuries as much as several hundred miles around will have to be evacuated for thousands of generations. Many feel it should be evacuated now. And no one has even tried to clean it up. It's still way too hot to go near, they say. So they leave it for a rainy day, but it won't go away.

How does 72.3 pounds compare with what was lost in Chernobyl and every other accident? It's an absurd question! It's cumulative. If you jump out of an airplane, just because you have fallen 30,000 feet is no reason not to pull the rip cord for the last 500 feet of descent! Those of us still alive -- and sure that's most of us but it sure isn't all of us! -- have every reason to not want to be subjected to yet another nuclear lottery in which the only winners are a few overpaid and undereducated, narrow-focused scientists, and the losers are everyone on the planet. If the Cassini probe survives reentry it could devastate an area as big as any city, making it uninhabitable instantly for thousands of years. And a sickening, evil death it would be, too! 72 pounds of black rain would decimate the land for miles and miles in every direction. And yet, that's probably safer for the world as a whole (everyone except those near where it falls) than if Cassini burns up in the upper atmosphere!

Learn this NOW!

It is vital that these facts be understood by everyone in modern society. Modern civilization manipulates poisons and chemicals that cause problems all the time. Substances causing everything from diarrhea to death in minutes are regularly transported, used, and stored throughout the world. And breathed and ingested, I might add. But plutonium is worse, far worse.

Is plutonium so different?

It is. For one thing, plutonium does not exist in nature. Every ounce of plutonium in existence is man-made. For another, your body thinks plutonium is iron. It accepts it and tries to use it as though it were iron--an essential mineral. What a deadly deception!

One of the things plutonium does is cause random mutations of DNA. DNA is the stuff that we are all made of. If there is any thing on the planet that mankind can say contains the makings of his soul, DNA is that thing. It is DNA which holds the genetic codes for ourselves and all our future generations. It is what makes a dozen generations of monarch butterflies migrate as a species to exact spots thousands of miles away. It is what we joyously join together in the union of sperm and egg. Watson and Crick were awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the format of it -- a double helix. If we are protective of anything, we should surely be protective of our DNA. Our species is defined by it. Our children look like us because of it. We are not apes or beasts because of it.

So we shouldn't act like beasts and spite it.

If we love our children and each other, our sisters and our brothers, our species and our civilization, or have any hope for humanity at all, we must be protective of our DNA. Lead aprons during dental visits is only the very tip of the iceberg. Things that are hazardous to our DNA should be avoided not just "like the plague", but like the even-more horrendous, cancerous, make-you-puke-from-chemotherapy disasters that they are. Plutonium is not something we as a species can live with!

Our DNA separates us from the beasts, but just barely. Only 1% of human DNA is unique, if even that much! The other 99% appears to be in common with the beasts! And even if, as some have speculated, much of the 99% we have in common is useless (we don't really know) nevertheless we can be sure that it is at most that 1% which makes us different -- and probably the part we really care about is even less than that! But it's enough!

Viva la 1%!!!!

The other thing that separates us from the beasts, at least in theory, is simply that we don't act like beasts.

We don't act like beasts. Or do we?

Plutonium is the deadliest substance known to mankind. This is a universally accepted truth. Yet NASA would send up 72.3 pounds of this stuff -- enough to kill everyone on earth many times over, if properly distributed -- on the grounds that they can:
A) Prevent a disaster at launch.
B) Prevent a disaster prior to leaving earth's gravitational pull.
C) Prevent a disaster by carefully aiming the Cassini space probe 312 miles above earth during a 1999 flyby.
That's a tall order:
A) Prevent a disaster at launch.
They intend to do this with a rocket type (the Titan) which has experienced numerous failures over its years of operation. They can't even claim a good track record. In 1993 a billion-dollar military spy satellite atop this very type of launch vehicle blew up. In fact NASA failures are so common, the latest spectacular explosion of an Atlas Launch Vehicle on January 17th, 1997 did not even make the front page of many newspapers! And Atlas Launch Vehicles are considered one of our most reliable!

B) Prevent a disaster prior to leaving earth's gravitational pull.
Any failure which occurs prior to leaving earth's gravitational pull can result in the probe falling back to earth and burning up, despite the fact that there is a supposed shield (made of iridium). This shield is barely the thickness of a fingernail and cannot survive impact with any of millions of pieces of space debris already in Near Earth Orbit. If the probe falls in such a way that the trajectory is particularly shallow there will be plenty of time to burn right through the shield and then incinerate the plutonium.

Many chemicals are transformed into other compounds and become harmless when burned. This is not true of plutonium. Actually, rather than rendering it harmless, burning plutonium is the "best" way to spread the deadly poison throughout the population!

C) Prevent a disaster by carefully aiming the Cassini space probe 312 miles above earth during a 1999 flyby.
Yes, it can be done. Physically, it's a great way to get some extra momentum to make it to Saturn without having to use too big a rocket. After wrapping around Venus a couple of times and gaining momentum, the probe can -- and will, if NASA succeeds at this -- be swung around earth for a 'flyby' and additional speed gain. But to do this, we must accurately aim it from millions of miles out in space at a point just 312 miles above the surface of the earth. That's just 245 miles above the point where atmospheric drag would slow the probe so it would be captured by earth's gravitational pull and either crash or burn up in the atmosphere. It can be done, but can it be done every time, this time, next time? 245 miles is less than 3 percent of the diameter of the earth. NASA loses control of satellites all the time! Our last probe to the outer solar system -- Galileo -- simply refused to unfurl it's antenna and became crippled! Also underreported -- too common to make the headlines -- was the mysterious and still-unsolved loss of an AT&T satellite in January, 1997. These things happen all the time. 90% of the satellites in orbit right now are non-functional and many of them became that way for no known reason.

Accidents DO happen...

This is not so trivial an issue -- the fact is that Cassini puts humanity at risk not once but on at least seven separate occasions: First in the production of the plutonium 238. Then in the building of the plutonium power generator or "RTG". These have both already occurred and indeed numerous workers were contaminated. Then when the RTG is transported and stored at NASA. Then while it is sitting atop millions of pounds of rocket fuel prior to launch (and many launches are repeatedly scrubbed in the last few moments). Then, if the launch button is finally pushed, one of the most hazardous moments occurs -- firing the initial stage. Then on through acceleration out of earth's orbit. Finally, humanity is put at risk once more, and in the worst way, during the 1999 flyby.

And after all of this, after putting humanity through all this risk, Cassini itself will suddenly be at its own greatest peril, at least in terms of the success of the mission.

Another possible glitch?

As Cassini flies out beyond where it can do us any harm, it will pass through a barrier no man has crossed before. It is a barrier which is dreaded by millions of computer programmers. A barrier so tough the U. S. Government has spent millions of dollars studying it, and so has every major corporation and most smaller ones. A barrier the Federal Government alone expects to spend from 10 to 30 billion dollars to overcome. It is a barrier technicians around the world are studying, fearing, and working on. It is a barrier not of space, but of time. A barrier of the fourth dimension.

On its way out to Saturn, Cassini will pass through the year 2000.

Even NASA is smart enough to dread this.

But so far, they are not smart enough to fix it.

A July 1996 U.S. Federal Government Year 2000 Report by Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Management Stephen Horn says: "NASA, one of the most innovative, advanced and computer-dependent agencies in the Federal government, has not prepared a plan to solve the problem and does not anticipate having a plan completed until March 1997."

Just seven months after completing the plan -- not the work, mind you, but the plan -- they will send Cassini off into outer space.

So you see, we run a considerable risk of not getting anything scientifically valuable out of this experiment one way or the other!

NASA does NOT have a tradition of preventing disasters.

NASA and other space agencies have a dismal record and a host of spectacular failures. NASA has been downsized, reorganized, scrutinized and large sections have been privatized. It sees itself in a fight for its very survival. The Russian space agency is in even worse shape, and is willing to sell us defective nuclear junk at bargain prices -- junk they themselves cannot afford to launch into space -- and we're stupid enough to buy it! The plutonium 238 on Cassini is not the product of our brilliant cold war strategy -- it's the product of the losing side! It's the hardware that lost the war, for gosh sakes! We buy this junk from the Russians!

Every living thing would be affected.

If Cassini has any of the worst-case accidents that are possible, it won't just be mankind's DNA that will be affected. Every living thing, from the Giant Redwoods to the lowly but vital plankton of the sea will be exposed. It's really wrong to only consider the thousands or millions of deaths that this can cause to humans. Other living things will suffer as well. This would be a disaster that is practically unprecedented in history! At least for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had two good excuses! First, there was the little matter of the war going on. And second, we were not nearly as aware of all the dangers of ionizing radiation! We are not so stupid now. We know that 72.3 pounds of plutonium 238 -- a particularly virulent form of plutonium, by the way -- is enough to sicken and kill millions of people if distributed properly. And high above-ground burning is a particularly effective method of distribution.

We have no excuses.

When we look back at events in history, it is easy to forgive some person or people for horrible things that happened during their times or for the follies of their ways. The Romans built great aqueducts but had deadly lead water pipes. In Victorian England it was thought that virgins were the cure to syphilis. Even our own Thomas Jefferson owned slaves in his time, yet he is rightfully honored for setting in motion and setting down on paper the principals of freedom which still guide us today.

But right now, today and as you read this, right now we know that what NASA plans to do is sheer, utter lunacy. They are playing a deadly game of chance with our DNA. There is no way they can control all the dangers -- you cannot engineer in safety against hazards such as existing space debris, frozen o-rings, and human error. Yet you can solve the problem! You can do the experiment safely! You simply do not use plutonium! It's that easy! The European Space Agency, which didn't have access to the nuclear option, has developed a solar battery pack that even NASA -- EVEN NASA! -- admits could serve the needs of the probe!

Now what's our excuse?

Can we really expect scientists who will not even use the safe alternative to make all the other difficult decisions correctly as well? No, and that's why we the people have to learn what is happening and take control through the courts, through public persuasion, through all legal means known. All it takes to stop NASA is the united will of the people. NASA cannot launch if America (and the rest of the world) wakes up and realizes what is happening.

You cannot call this crud High Tech...

This is old technology. It is proven technology--proven deadly. It is not "high tech" at all and there is no reason to be proud of anything that puts humanity at such risk for so little gain.

The liability from a Cassini catastrophe would be in the billions and billions of dollars, although we have passed laws (which are probably not valid outside the U.S.A.) artificially limiting Government liability to slightly under $1 billion. But do you know who pays when your own government refuses to pay? You do! You pay with medical bills, you pay with lung cancers and genetic disorders. You pay, but the government won't pay you. You're on your own on this, so you might as well protest it now, before it can do you such great harm!


Please read our other articles. Print some of them out and share them with your friends. Email your friends the address of the STOP CASSINI home page. Add a link to it or to this page. Contact your congressperson. We must tell NASA we are watching them, and they've gone too far this time and we will not allow even one more launch based on the unsafe nuclear option!


By Russell D. Hoffman
Related pages at this web site:
Stop Cassini Home Page
No Nukes In Space! Not now, not ever.
Space Debris Home Page
A series of articles on this shameful problem.

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First placed online January 31st, 1997.
Last modified June 3rd, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman