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Warning: Hazardous debris from NASA's latest inferno
By Bob Harris
THIS JUST IN, courtesy the brilliant minds of NASA: If you come across a piece of flaming space debris, don't play with it. Cassini was the deep-space doohickey NASA sent up last October to get some neato scientifical factulation about the moons and rings of Saturn.
Trouble was, lots of highly respected scientists outside of NASA's O-ring were worried, because the probe's batteries were powered by plutonium-238, an isotope 280 times more radioactive than the stuff in nuclear warheads. Plutonium is the most toxic, vile, deadly substance this side of the new Avengers movie. A sugar packet of the stuff could hypothetically wipe out Indianapolis. Which would be bad, what with that new mall they just put in and everything.
Cassini didn't just have a sugar packet of the stuff; it contained more than 72 pounds of Pu-238. Evenly distributed--as in, say, a vaporizing explosion occurring in the upper atmosphere--that's enough plutonium to imaginably kill hundreds of millions of people.
And NASA strapped it all on top of a Titan IV rocket, which is generally considered to be only about 95 percent reliable.
Sometimes it just blows up instead. Which NASA said wouldn't be a big deal, even with 72 pounds of plutonium on board. NASA says its method of containing the plutonium in ceramic is sufficient to prevent any widespread release. But other reputable scientists disagree, contending that NASA has insufficiently accounted for the local temperatures and pressures present in a catastrophic explosion.
One of NASA's own former chiefs of emergency preparedness even compared the whole deal to the Titanic catastrophe.
But the launch went off, the Titan IV managed not to blow up--it does that only about one time in 20--and so the concerned scientists were written off as alarmists. The media moved on.
So, a few days ago ...
Dateline Florida: A Titan IV rocket went kablooey, turning into a giant fireball 40 seconds after launch, showering over a billion dollars' worth of fiery crap into the Atlantic Ocean.
Nowhere that I can find in the mainstream media has anyone drawn the connection between that explosion and the fears of rocket scientists so recently dismissed as alarmists.
The latest payload--apparently a National Reconnaissance Office eavesdropping satellite code-named Vortex--was considered Way Top Secret, so I haven't yet been able to find out much, but here's something creepy: The Air Force is warning anyone who comes across any of the debris to consider it hazardous material and stay the heck away from it.
However, and fortunately, there's no indication so far there was plutonium fuel in the payload.
That still doesn't change a disturbing fact: Last I checked, NASA is still planning roughly a dozen more launches of plutonium-fueled probes. On Titan IV rockets. Which go boom sometimes.
One of these days, if our luck runs out, the Florida coast might be warmed by something other than just the sun.
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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.