STOP CASSINI Newsletter #46 -- September 21st, 1997

Copyright (c) 1997

STOP CASSINI Newsletters Index

Subject: STOP CASSINI NEWSLETTER #46 - September 21st, 1997


Here we answer a USA TODAY letter from Otto Raabe, and show NASA "forgetting about" 9/10th's of the problem of space debris when discussing it with Congresspeople in a hearing on MIR before the science committee.

Sincerely, Russell D. Hoffman, Editor, STOP CASSINI NEWSLETTER

***** STOP CASSINI NEWSLETTER Volume #46, September 21st, 1997 *****
Today's subjects:

****** VOLUME #46 September 21st, 1997 ******

By Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman

*** Dr. Otto Raabe congratulates USA TODAY. We don't:

This was typed in and shown to us by Barbara Wolf. You can visit her Global Meditations web site at:

Dr. Raabe's comments have been italicized for clarity.

You can send your own comments to USA today to:

Information Network
1000 Wilson Blvd. (22nd floor)
Arlington, VA 22229

or contact them online at:

~~~~~ FROM USA TODAY, September 19th, 1997: ~~~~~


Congratulations, USA Today, on your views in the Atoms in Space Editorial Debate ("Anti-nuke scaremongers threaten Saturn mission," Our View, Tuesday).

No congratulations from me, USA Today.

This is an issue of importance to the Health Physics Society, whose 6,500 members specialize in the field of radiation safety.

I am confident that the Health Physics Society is not unanimously in favor of Cassini. I would like to hear that a poll had been taken in which the opposition was allowed to state their main objections to the Society members beforehand. Furthermore health physicists are not necessarily medical doctors, many of whom DO oppose Cassini. They are, in large part, simply a group of people who are paid to use nuclear medical equipment.

As you correctly pointed out, there is little risk to anyone from accidental releases of plutonium associated with the use of radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) power supplies in NASA's planned Cassini probe to Saturn.

The RTGs are inert radioactive batteries that provide electricity utilizing the natural heat energy associated with radioactive decay of plutonium-238.

This is not a nuclear reactor or bomb fissile fuel.

We on the opposition are well aware of the form and TYPE of plutonium. These last three paragraphs simply state accepted facts.

To pose a significant risk to people, plutonium must be deposited within the human body through inhalation as finely divided, airborne particles.

Agreed. Agreed. Agreed. I have been in contact with a significant portion of the opposition, and I can tell you they all agree with this statement.

Plutonium outside the body or swallowed into the gastrointestinal tract poses much less risk.

However, it is not risk-free when ingested by ANY means. Furthermore, about 12% of the plutonium would be Pu 239 with a half-life of 24,400 years and which will stay in the environment effectively "forever" (considering how long mankind has been around...) Cassini can kill for many millennia.

The rigorous engineering safety design of the RTG precludes serious release of plutonium from these devices even in a catastrophic accident.

Actually NASA documentation states differently, For the flyby, for example, NASA states that 33% of the plutonium fuel can be released in a flyby reentry accident (June 1995 EIS, page 4-53).

Does anyone know why -- can anyone tell me why -- NASA changed that number in the June 1997 EIS to 3%, which is still about two pounds of plutonium, which is still BILLIONS of lethal doses just waiting to be spread into the environment? NASA states the RTGs have 12, 25, and 37 years of experience and technology. What happened in the two years to change that number? (Dates based on June 1995 EIS page 2-20, 2-14, and recent statements by Beverly Cook, JPL PR person.)

As you noted, the Cassini vehicle is scheduled to orbit Venus to pick up that planet's momentum and swing back close to the Earth to get an extra boost for the trip to Saturn.

Although extremely unlikely, accidental re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere during this fly-by could lead to the release and dispersion into the atmosphere of some of the plutonium-238.

Even if the whole vehicle were to vaporize in the upper atmosphere, people on Earth would subsequently receive radiation doses that are less than 1% of those which we all normally receive from natural background ionizing radiation.

I agree with this statement, or at least I have no reason to doubt it. The dose may well be less than 1%, on average. But there are two problems. First of all, millions, tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions might get significantly more than the average dose. Others would get less, of course, but considering how many we are talking about who would get more, the issue needs to be addressed. Raabe does not address it. Second, how can Raabe claim that background radiation is harmless, while about 30% of us will die of cancer, often triggered by who-knows-what?


There is no known or expected risk associated with such small radiation exposures.

Early this year enough credible studies finally began to appear "proving" (to a "scientific degree of reliability") that second-hand cigarette smoke is a killer. A major killer, in fact, for example recent estimates are that second-hand cigarette smoke kills about 5,000 people a year in California alone. We are just learning about this hazard, but many qualified scientists suspected it for decades, even centuries.

But it is hard to identify, or scientifically prove. Plutonium deaths as Cassini can cause them will probably be even harder, far harder in fact, to identify, as are deaths from previous weapons testings. "Hard to identify" and "nonexistent" are not the same thing. When reasonable alternatives exist it is wrong to put mankind at such awful risk. It is certainly also reasonable to question whether the science return could EVER justify the risk Dr. Raabe does not see.

Otto G. Raabe, PH.D.
Davis, Calif.

The writer is president of the Health Physics Society, Institute of Toxicology and Environmental Health, University of California.

Non-italicized comments by Russell Hoffman, unregistered thinker, uncredited scientist, unqualified philosopher, unprofessional writer and unthinking blowhard, according to some... The pages from NASA containing the statements quoted are available for view at our web site since NASA hasn't seen fit to publish them themselves on the World Wide Web...

*** James Spellman Calls for High School Debate teams to contact him:

As longtime readers, or even relatively short-time readers of this newsletter know, James Spellman does not support our cause and has debated us frequently with these electrons.

Long-time readers also know that a number of school debaters have written us, telling us they are involved in debates.

Spellman has asked us to request any school debate teams who wish to hear "the other side of the coin" to contact him directly or visit the web site of the National Space Society (NSS). Here is his email address:

Jim Spellman describes himself as "a non-paid volunteer (at present) with the National Space Society". He was also recently honored with the "Space Pioneer Award" from NSS as activist of the year. He is also President - California Space Development Council and Executive Director - NSS/Western Spaceport Chapter.

The URL of the National Space Society is:

Science teachers and debate coaches, etc. may also wish to contact him and he encourages them to do so.

*** Dr. Horst Poehler would also like to help schools to debate Cassini:

On the other side of the fence from Mr. Spellman is Dr. Horst Poehler who has told me he would also be interested in being contacted by schools interested in debating Cassini. Dr. Poehler is a 22 year veteran senior scientist with NASA primary contractors and opposes Cassini. After working in NASA's halls for decades he is now retired and resides in Florida and can be contacted at:

or via phone at (407) 777-1686.

Dr. Poehler's article, Cassini Cancers: The Plutonium Story can be found at our web site at this URL:

*** New York Stop Cassini rally features Congressman Nadler:

The September 20th, 1997 New York City Rally Against Cassini went off without a hitch yesterday under threatening skies with hundreds of people in attendance and about a half dozen pro-nuclear Cassini hecklers as well.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY, 8th Congressional District) kicked off the rally with a rousing speech, pointing out that sooner or later, even if Cassini goes well, there is going to be a catastrophe if we continue to launch plutonium payloads into space.

Other speakers included Dr. Michio Kaku and Professor Karl Grossman, as well as over two dozen other speakers. Part of the "Bread and Puppet" performing arts troupe appeared. Also 16-year old Nora Randolph from The Dalton School gave a moving speech titled "Ignorance Is Not Bliss".

Rally attendees came from as far away as Maine and New Hampshire and included many different environmental groups.

During the rally a "small but vociferous group" of about a half dozen Cassini supporters appeared on the sidelines. Mark Elsis, coordinator of LOVEARTH, the rally sponsor, went over and invited them to come up and speak before the crowd, but at first they refused. Later, one of them did decide to come up and speak for about 5 minutes. He was loudly rebutted by the crowd when he stated that the science was worth the risk.

Immediately after the rally there was a torrential downpour.

*** A MIR 500 yards: Space Debris imperils Russian space station.

As long-time readers of this newsletter know, I have been an outspoken critic of the growing problem of space debris for many years. A few days ago the problem-plagued MIR space station came within 500 yards of a collision with an old American DoD satellite. We transcribed the relevant portions of Congressional testimony regarding the safety of MIR which was shown on CSPAN, and which appears below.

The speakers quoted here are:

Frank Culbertson ("FC")
NASA Phase One Program Manager

Representative Bill Luther ("BL")

James Oberg ("JO")
Independent Consultant


FC: "The greatest safety concern I have IS the depressurization on board. That could be caused by micrometeoriods, orbital debris, and I believe that this is something we are going to have to deal with in great -- to great length in the future for ISS, Shuttle, all spacecraft which are flying because there's a lot of stuff up there and we're going to have to figure out some way to deal with it and prevent it from hitting our manned -- our spacecraft that have humans on board.

"And we need to be prepared to deal with it -- the Russians have procedures for dealing with that but I believe depressurization for whatever cause is probably the greatest safety concern that I have."


BL: "I thank you Mister Chairman, and thank you to the panel for your presentations today. I have just one question, really that I wanted to ask, about the near miss Monday night that was reported in the media. As I understand it, we're talking about a few hundred yards. There was a reconnaissance satellite, an American reconnaissance satellite or at least --

FC: "Science satellite"

BL: Another satellite in any event and apparently it was on a perpendicular path with the particular station in question here."

FC: "Overtaking it from behind"

BL: "Okay. I'm going by the press reports that I've read and I assume there could be some inaccuracies in some of those press reports. But apparently what occurred is that the occupants of the station chose to seal themselves into the capsule, rather than to position themselves to maneuver the entire station to outmaneuver the overtaking satellite or whatever, whatever the case may be.

"My question is, is that a standard operating procedure for the MIR spacecraft. Would that have been the standard operating procedure for a U.S. spacecraft?"

FC: "Under certain circumstances, yes Sir, it would. Actually Mr. Oberg is more of an expert in ballistics than I am and can probably describe the scenario better but I would like to say that we had, at the beginning, when we began our cooperative effort and put Americans on the MIR, one of the things we were concerned about are what we call conjunctions or close approaches of other spacecraft or debris with the MIR itself. We follow this all the time for the shuttle, and it's a major endeavor that we watch very closely, because there is a lot of "stuff" up there, as I said.

We received a notification from our space command through our mission operations director, they passed it on to the Russians. The procedure there is to give them the data on the satellite or whatever it is. They start tracking it if they are not already, and they keep talking to each other and concurring on what the track is and what the miss distance is going to be. What triggers that is a close approach -- an estimated close approach of inside of a 2 by 2 by 5 kilometer box. That was the case here, the estimate initially was about two kilometers then it reduced down to about one kilometer. The Russian procedures are if it is inside 2 kilometers they will evacuate the MIR and get into the Soyuz. They don't necessarily seal the hatch, though I do believe they close it in most cases and they are ready to evacuate or separate themselves from the MIR if it does take a hit. The MIR being much larger is more likely to take a hit that than the Soyuz itself.

The procedures on the shuttle are such that if anything is estimated to enter that same box -- and usually you start getting some data about 24 hours or so before -- is that right, Jim, ahead of time?

JO: "Yeah, you get advance word and you can start to maneuver ahead of time."

FC: "And then on the shuttle our fight rules state that if we are not in any critical maneuver we will maneuver the shuttle to move that debris outside the box. If we are in a critical maneuver and that's defined by several different ways including being docked to a station or in the middle of a rendezvous or deploying a satellite -- there are a number of them -- we would not maneuver the shuttle. The reason for that is there is a certain amount of uncertainty on the calculations that are conducted by Space Command at least to plus or minus 250 meters or so and so you might maneuver right into it instead of away from it. Its one of those things that I'm very concerned about and I believe we need to address more completely. But it's one of the real hazards of space flight that we have to deal with.

FO: "The fact that this could happen last week It really makes you wonder who's loading the dice because it wasn't the Russian's fault. It wasn't the old station's fault, or the ground infrastructure, it was just one of those things. It did come closer than usual but the Russian experience has been, and appears to be prudent, that space is really really big. And there's lots things up there. They can fly close to you, they can pass by you but if they don't touch you, and they miss you, you're safe. Going into the Soyuz appeared to have been the appropriate level of reaction, and they've done that before, I'm not sure how many times before but it appears to have been -- it's a safe procedure to do.

So I have no concerns over doing that. The satellite was an old dead DoD sensor satellite and it was in a polar orbit. It just happened to pass down through the orbit of the MIR. They are watching for these things, and it's reassuring that they see them in advance.

FC: "We see this about every one or two months, and usually they end up not being that close."

BL: "But in any event what you're assuring us is that you didn't see anything that, that -- in terms of the reaction or response that caused you --

FC: "No, it was totally appropriate."

BL: "--any concern.

FC: "No Sir."

BL: "Thank you."


What didn't get said is that for every piece of space debris being tracked that can cause a hole big enough to catastrophically destroy MIR (or any existing spacecraft), there are at least a hundred or perhaps even a thousand -- or perhaps even more -- pieces of space debris which are fully capable of destroying MIR, which are not tracked at all! How this entire conversation shown above could go on without explaining this fact to the Representatives from Congress is utterly baffling, especially because in other instances I have seen, it seemed to me that Frank Culbertson was an open spokesperson when discussing NASA risks. Yet he did not reveal this crucial piece of information! He owes Congressman Luther an explanation of how big a piece of space debris can cause a "softball-sized hole" in MIR, or a "quarter-sized hole" (two sizes of holes which were mentioned in the hearing.) And as for James Oberg, described by Culbertson as a "ballistics expert," he may know ballistics but he doesn't seem to know statistics. Or why didn't he mention to the Congressman that for every piece you get a warning on and can steer around, perhaps 1000 or more went by even closer that are just as dangerous, that you cannot see and simply risk hitting. (A risk worth taking to be a space explorer, I'm sure, but not a risk worth passing 72 pounds of plutonium dioxide through on two separate occasions)?

NASA and Russia have both been lucky so far. It may look like bad luck, so they have a hearing but really, they've been lucky. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make this statement. Earth-orbiting space stations are accident-prone from the enormous amounts of space debris the world's careless military and civilian space agencies have placed in Near Earth Orbit and continue to place in orbit at an unsustainable and horrendous rate.

No one wanted to open that can of worms for the Congresspeople who were supposedly being told the whole picture.


Here are the figures for space debris from the 1995 Interagency Report:

10 cm or greater: 8000 (These are what are tracked)
1 to 10 cm: 110,000
.01 to 1 cm: 35,117,000

A 1 cm piece of aluminum traveling at 10 km per second has the kinetic energy of a 400 pound safe at 88 feet per second (60 mph). Such a tiny object is quite conceivably big enough to cause a "softball-sized hole" in MIR. MIR is designed, according to the statements in the hearing, to be escapable or survivable after at most about a quarter-sized hole (which would give only a few minutes to evacuate the ship or plug the hole).

These figures paint a very different picture from the rosey one painted by Mr. Culbertson and Mr. Oberg. Once again the truth has been hidden by NASA.

When will the deceptions stop?

For a more complete discussion of space debris please see newsletter #24 which is posted at this URL:

An introductory article about Space Debris (actually a transcription of a radio broadcast) is located at this URL:

The JPL Space Science web site on space debris is located at this URL:

The JPL web site also has JPL research information on Space Radiation Research, which studies astronaut dangers to radiation in space, not statistical research into global low level radiation dangers from plutonium 238 and plutonium 239 released into the environment.


Please feel free to post these newsletters anywhere you feel it's appropriate! THANKS!!!

Welcome new subscribers!

Thanks for reading,
Russell D. Hoffman
STOP CASSINI webmaster.


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