The Common Good
July-August 1997

Chernobyl From the Sky?

by Sandy Maben, Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | July-August 1997

In what has been called the "Top
Censored Story of 1996,"
NASA has plans to launch 72.3 pounds of deadly plutonium-238
aboard its Cassini probe to Saturn on ...

In what has been called the "Top Censored Story of 1996," NASA has plans to launch 72.3 pounds of deadly plutonium-238 aboard its Cassini probe to Saturn on October 6, 1997. The probe is set to be carried into space atop a Titan IV, a rocket with a history of liftoff disasters.

Assuming the Cassini does make it into space without scattering its lethal payload throughout southern Florida, there is another chance for disaster in 1999 when the probe—flying at 42,300 miles per hour—skirts by at 312 miles above the surface of the Earth, using the planet’s gravitational field to slingshot it toward Saturn. According to NASA’s own environmental impact statement, should an "inadvertent reentry" happen at that time, "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population" would be exposed to the plutonium’s radiation.

Though plutonium has long been considered by scientists to be the most toxic substance on Earth, this hasn’t stopped space agencies from putting thousands or even millions of people at risk by hurling it through our atmosphere aboard space-bound rockets. Small amounts of plutonium were used as a power source on the Apollo moon missions. The Galileo space probe flew into space in 1989 with nearly 50 pounds of the lethal substance. In 1990, the Ulysses space probe carried more than 25 pounds of plutonium into space. Just last year, a Russian Mars probe fell apart in Earth’s atmosphere and scattered a half-pound of plutonium over Chile and southern Bolivia.

The Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, an organization that monitors NASA’s activities, has called for a demonstration at Cape Canaveral on October 4, 1997, to protest the dangers posed by the Cassini project.

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