by Karl Grossman and Judith Long

This article originally appeared in The Nation, September 11th, 1995

Reprinted by permission of Karl Grossman

Karl Grossman is the author of The Wrong Stuff

Apollo 13, the movie blockbuster of the summer, was an "exciting piece of reality" to Theresa Crowley, an anchor at WCBS, a New York City all-news radio station. Yes, said her guest, Dick Wild, a former systems engineer on the ill-fated Apollo mission, "nothing was added."

Perhaps nothing was added to the story of the three astronauts shipwrecked in space in the spring of 1970, but a significant element of the story was left out: Apollo 13 carried a nuclear device. Aboard the lunar excursion module, or LEM, was a SNAP-27 (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) to supply energy for experiments on the moon. Slated to be left there, the SNAP-27 contained 8.3 pounds of plutoniumÄ a radioactive material so toxic that less than a millionth of a gram can give a person cancer.

The plutonium-fueled SNAP-27 was still aboard the LEM when the astronauts, forced to abandon their malfunctioning command ship, used the LEM as their lifeboat. As Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, one of the three astronauts, put it in his book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, upon which the film was based:

On the surface of the moon, the tiny generator posed no danger to anybody. But what, some people worried . . . would happen if the little rod of nuclear fuel never made it to the moon? What if the Saturn 5 rocket blew up before the spacecraft even reached Earth orbit, dropping the [plutonium] who knows where? . . . now Apollo 13's LEM was on it's way home, heading for just the fiery reentry the doomsayers had feared.

Not only were the three astronauts in danger of losing their lives. Millions of people were in danger of nuclear contamination if the astronauts' high-risk return to Earth went awry.

In the movie, the LEM, haven and lifeboat in space, is jettisoned for the astronauts' perilous reentry into the Earth's atmosphere in their damaged command ship. The LEM seems to float off into the void, briefly mourned by its former inhabitants. Actually, however, it plunged to Earth. NASA, says Lovell, aimed the LEM and its plutonium capsule toward a "spot off New Zealand" in the Pacific.

Fortunately, the plutonium container survived re-entry and, according to NASA documents, was "successfully targeted to deposit intact in the Tonga Trench in the South Pacific where it is effectively isolated from man's environment." It remains there to this day.

Is the ocean isolated from our environment? The plutonium in Apollo 13's capsule will be hotly radioactive for 2,000 years.

Why was the plutonium story left out of the movie? Michael Rosenberg, executive vice president of Imagine Entertainment, which produced Apollo 13, says the omission was "an artist decision." NASA, no doubt, was grateful. Apollo 13 posed a much larger danger than NASA wants the publicÄthen or nowÄto realize. And NASA, along with the military and the Adminstration, continues to push ahead with the deployment of nuclear devices in space. Among the projects on the nuclear drawing board:

The 1997 Cassini mission to Saturn. The space probe will be loaded with 72.3 pounds of plutonium, more than has ever been sent into space. It will be launched atop a Titan IV rocket, a rocket plagued by a serial of explosions on launch. (A Titan IV blowup in 1993 destroyed a billion-dollar spy satelite.) Cassini, like the Apollo 13 rescue, will use a "slingshot" maneuver to gain momentum, hurtling the probe toward Earth for a "flyby" at 42,300 miles an hour. If Cassini is accidentally drawn into the Earth's atmosphere and its plutonium capsule doesn't survive like Apollo's SNAP-27, "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population . . . could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure," says NASA's environmental impact statement.

"Star Wars." Topaz 2 space nuclear reactors are currency being ground-tested at the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory in New Mexico. These "Chernobyls in the sky" were purchased from Russia for placement on orbiting battle platforms to provide power for hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons of the Strategic Defense Initiative, renamed Ballistic Missile Defense by the Clinton Administration and continued at a budget of more than $3 billion a year (an amount Newt Gingrich pledges to increase as part of the Contract With America).

As Apollo 13's SNAP-27 lies in the depths of the Tonga Trench, people can only hope its ceramic casing will last for 2,000 years. But Cassini can be run on solar power and Star Wars can be stopped. Antinuclear groups around the world are active. On the island of Kauai in Hawaii, Star Wars test firings have met with demonstrations and arrests. The Green Party in Germany and activists in other European countries are organizing against the Cassini mission. And worldwide efforts are being coordinated by the Global Network Against Nuclear Power and Weapons in Space.

In Apollo 13, Marilyn Lovell, wife of the endangered astronaut, tries to get the truth about her husband's peril. She screams at a NASA bureaucrat, "Don't give me that NASA [Bull]!" That could become a rallying cry.

by Karl Grossman

Karl Grossman's video, Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens is available from Enviro Video. Judith Long is The Nation's copy editor.

Reprinted online by permission of Karl Grossman.

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