Old Westbury, N.Y.
The countdown to potentially unparalleled disaster has begun. This afternoon the National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to launch the space shuttle Atlantis, with its space probe containing 49.25 pounds of lethal plutonium. From the moment the button at the Kennedy Space Center is pushed to the two high-speed, low-level "flybys" of Earth by the probe in 1980 and 1992, great danger is at hand.
NASA is pushing ahead with the Galileo mission despite strong opposition from citizens' groups and its own revised estimate of a major shuttle accidentÄfrom 1 in 100,000 before the Challenger disaster to 1 in 78.
If an accident occurs on the launch pad or in a Challenger-like explosion in the lower atmosphere, a "catastrophic incident" will result, says Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York. The radioactive plutonium would float in a plume, and where it falls, he sags, tens of thousands of people could die.
The risk is high because less than a millionth of a gram of plutonium is a fatal dose and, Dr. Kaku notes, "a single pound, if it were pulverized and spread throughout the planet, could indeed kill everyone on Earth."
If the plutonium were "dispersed in fine pieces over Florida," says John Gofman, former associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, "kiss Florida goodbye."
Furthermore, the threat won't end when the probe is launched from the shuttle in orbit, because the probe won't go directly to Jupiter. It will first go to Venus, then be sent hurting back to Earth, then back to space and back to Earth again, using gravitational pull to increase velocity. On the second Earth flyby, the probe will be only 185 miles overhead and moving at more than 30,000 miles per hourÄthe fastest manmade obect ever to buzz the Earth.
If, on a flyby, the probe should plummet to Earth, disintegrating as it hits the atmosphere, there could be a widespread dispersal of plutonium.
If all 49.25 pounds of plutonium were released, according to Dr. Gofman, it would result in "more than the combined plutonium radioactivity returned to Earth in the fallout from all the nuclear-weapons testing of the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom."
Those involved in the mission concede the threat will go on for years. A safety analysis done by General Electric, the manufacturer of Galileo's plutonium hardware, states that only after the 1992 flyby and "escape of the spacecraft from the Earth's gravitation pull" will the plutonium "no longer present a potential risk to the Earth's population."
NASA's record with nuclear power sources is poor. In 22 launches involving such devices, three ended in failure, including a satellite that crashed back into the atmosphere in 1964. The plutonium it released contributed to global lung cancer rates, says Dr. Gofman, who has studied the incident for more than 20 years.
Why is this gigantic risk being taken when knowledgeable opponents argue that other potential sources of power for the probe, such as solar energy and long-lived fuel cells, might be used?
Use of nuclear power in space provides a market for G. E., which for years has been hard-pressed to sell its nuclear power plants. It also fits the nuclear-power agendas of the Department of Energy and national nuclear labs, which have been given the responsibility to provide power systems for NASA's probes.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a prime NASA contractor, supports the Galileo mission because it will contribute "significantly to our defence capability particulary in the areas of communication, navigation and radiation tolerance."
Thus, Galileo and next year's Ulysses plutonium-powered probe to the sun (which would have been Callenger's next mission) will pave the way for launches of substantial amounts of military nuclear devices into space in the 1990's. They include the G.E.-built SP-100 space reactor to provide power for the lasers and weapons platforms of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
In 1986, warnings of disaster ahead were ignored and the lives of seven brave people aboard the Challenger were snuffed Out. Now the lives of far, far more people are threatened.
Reprinted online by permission of the author.