Real risks of Cassini

October 15, 1997|By Max Obuszewski

SOME TEN YEARS ago, the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory worked on a long-term Navy contract for the Aegis Combat Systems. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, a Navy warship with an Aegis battle-management system, shot down an Iranian airliner over the southern Persian Gulf after mistaking it for an attacking fighter jet. All 290 people on board were killed.

Accidents are inevitable, despite scientific guarantees to the contrary. One unpredictable factor is human error, which contributed to the nuclear power accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the Hubble Space Telescope mishap.

The Air Force recently determined that an incorrect installation of a part caused the crash of an F-117A stealth fighter in Baltimore County.

Despite the assurances of APL scientists Stamatios M. Krimigis and Darrell F. Srobel that today's planned launch of the Cassini space probe, with 73 pounds of plutonium on board, is not dangerous, I will be protesting at NASA headquarters. I do not believe what they wrote: ''The Cassini mission does not pose any real threat to the well-being of any living organisms.'' (Opinion Commentary, Oct. 1)

Of course, it is expected that scientists working at a laboratory that receives some 95 percent of its budget from the Pentagon would endorse the use of plutonium. However, their argument that the chance of an accident during re-entry to Earth's atmosphere ''is about one in a million'' is meaningless and scientifically dishonest.

What were NASA's odds for an accident before the launch of the Challenger? Regardless of the odds, the Challenger blew up because of an O-ring failure. Rather than postulating odds, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be publishing actual operating records.

The Cassini probe will be taken into space by a Titan IV rocket, which has a failure rate of one accident in 20 launches. The accident happened on Aug. 2, 1993, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, when the rocket carrying three solar-powered spy satellites blew up two minutes after takeoff.

At Cape Canaveral, where the Cassini space probe awaits liftoff, a $55 million Delta II rocket with a $40 million Air Force satellite as its payload blew up 13 seconds after launch on January 17 this year.

The Apollo 13 mission's lunar module carried 5.5 pounds of plutonium. Twenty-seven years later, NASA has yet to recover the plutonium, which is believed to be 3 1/2 miles deep in the ocean near Fiji.

NASA has a failure rate of 3 out of 24 nuclear missions, including Apollo 13. Six of 39 Soviet missions with nuclear materials have failed.

A U.S. Navy transit satellite, powered by a nuclear device, vaporized over the Indian Ocean on April 21, 1964, spreading its 2.1 pounds of plutonium worldwide. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of California at Berkeley, who investigated the crash, believes that the accident caused an increase in lung cancer rates. That transit satellite was designed by APL.

It is probably too late to stop the $3.4 billion Cassini mission, and it may unfold flawlessly. However, it is inevitable another accident will happen. NASA has scheduled many other missions that will use plutonium.

Max Obuszewski is with the Baltimore Emergency Response Network protest group.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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