The most recent NASA mishap, the loss of the $1 billion Mars Observer in late August, coming on the heels of a multi-billion dollar series of U.S. space fiascoes, has raised questions about the nation's ability to manage its space program.
Well they should.
NASA, despite efforts at reform, continues to be an agency with an institutional culture of arrogance. Policy aims are still fuzzy. U.S. space activities have increasingly become mired in wildly dubious military schemes. And there is a lack of concern for the tax dollar.
Further, NASA continues to push for projects which not only could waste more billions of tax dollars but could cost the lives of peoplesÄmany lives.
NASA, for example, is readying a 1997 launch of a space probe to carry 73 pounds of deadly plutonium -- the most plutonium ever carried into space.
That amount of plutonium, if dispersed in an accident, is theoretically enough to give a lethal dose cancer to everyone on Earth.
The plutonium is to be used in a power source on a space probe called Cassini which is to explore Saturn.
It is to be launched on a Titan IV rocket.
That's the same rocket that on August 2 exploded over the Pacific, destroying its secret payload, a $2 billion spy satellite system.
Also, in the Titan IV rocket will be a second rocket, a Centaur, to which the Cassini probe will be attached and is supposed to propel it to Saturn, once both are ejected from the Titan IV.
If this Titan IV blows up, it would easily cause the Centaur, a particularly volatile liquid-fueled rocket, to erupt as well. Vaporized in such a double explosion, the plutonium would be dispersed far and wide.
Even if the Cassini probe is successfully launched into space on the Titan IV, that does not end the danger.
The Centaur rocket does not have the power to get Cassini to Satum. So what NASA plans is a "slingshot maneuver." The probe, after entering space, would then be aimed back at the Earth, to whip around the planet 320 miles overhead. The object: to make use of Earth's gravity to increase Cassini's velocity so it can get to Saturn . . . as long as there is no foul-up.
Too deep a descent on the Earth "flyby" could cause Cassini to disintegrate in the Earth's atmosphere and the plutonium, "the most toxic chemical known to science, to shower down and a tremendous tragedy for the people of the Earth to result," says Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New Yolk.
The only times such a "slingshot maneuver" involving the Earth and a plutonium space probe were attempted before were in 1990 and 1992 with the problem-plagued Galileo space probe which carried 50 pounds of plutonium.
Thankfully, the Galileo passed the Earth on its two passes -- although its main communications antenna remains unfurled as it heads on to Jupiter, leaving the $1.4 billion mission crippled.
We made it twice. And in NASA's arrogant game of space-borne nuclear Russian roulette, the people of Earth are to be put at lethal risk again.
It is important to note that the plutonium has nothing to do with getting the Cassini probe from here to (hopefully) there. It's being used in three radioisotope thermal generators (RTG's) that are to provide electricity for the probe -Ä although some scientists like Dr. Kaku consider a combination of solar Photovoltaic electric power and long-lived fuel cells now feasible for space probe flights, even to as far as Saturn.
Indeed, documents from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released to me after the Galileo launch conceded that this mission "could be performed with a concentrated photoyoltaic solar array power source without changing the mission sequence or impracting science objectives."
Meanwhile, NASA has plans for two follow-up plutonium space probe flights in 1999 to Pluto.
And the Department of Energy (DOE) which, with its national nuclear laboratories, is in charge of developing NASA's plutonium power sources is preparing to import plutonium from Russia for these and other U.S. plutonium-fueled space operations.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has also been deeply involved in U.S. nuclear space activities and has obtained two Topaz II space nuclear reactors from Russia and wants to buy four more.
It planned its first launch of a Topaz II in 1995, but that flight has been postponed after objections from scientists concerned about the impact of radiation emitted by Topaz on instruments aboard space satellites and protests from opponents of the deployment of space borne weapons and nuclear power.
Topaz flights would leave "a trail" of nuclear particles in earth orbit, complained University of Chicago astrophysicist Don Lamb.
"Topaz reflects the intention of the Pentagon to develop large-scale power capability in space, and we know that the only use of such capability is for weapons," says Bruce Gagnon, co-coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "Even though there is now a supposed delay of the 1995 flight test, the military is ground-testing Topaz at the Air Force's Phillops Laboratory in New Mexico."
Topaz reactor would be a "flying Chernobyl," says Gagnon, whose group is based in Florida, where from Kennedy Space Center Topaz would be launched.
It is not a plutonium device but a complete nuclear reactor," he notes, "and we could face the same type of problem we saw at Chernobyl -- and maybe worse if an accident scattered radioactive debris more widely."
The DOD initially planned to acquire the Topaz reactor as a power source for laser weapons, hypervelocity guns and neutral particle beams on orbiting battle platforms for "Star Wars."
What the use of the Topaz would now be with "Star Wars" supposedly canceled by the Clinton Administration is unclearÄother than the revealing point made by John Stevens of the Martin Marietta Corporation at the Tenth Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion held earlier this year in New Mexico. "The Topaz flight will break down political barriers for use of nuclear power in space," he declared. Martin Marietta has bought General Electric's Astro-Space Division and is now the leading U.S. manufacturer of nuclear space devices. (The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space will be organizing demonstrations at the Eleventh annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion to be held January 9-10, 1994, again in Albuquerque, New Mexico.)
Meanwhile, a series of missile launches from the island of Kanai in Hawaii arranged to test "space weapons" systems began earlier this year, and is continuing. The most recent launch in what is now called the "Stars" program occurred on August 24.'
There were arrests of protesters concerned that an accident involving the old, modified Polaris missiles being fired could devastate their "garden island."
And it is not just a beautiful Hawaiian island in jeopardy: people all over the Earth are threatened by America's misfocused, weaponized, wasteful, nuclearized -Ä and highly accident-prone -- space program.
Reprinted online by permission of the author.