The Action Site to Stop Cassini Earth Flyby
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NoFlyby Alert #10

January 13, 1999

From the Observer, January 10, 1999:

Officials swing behind spaceship
By Robin McKie, Science Editor

It took six years and £2 billion to construct, and involved hundreds of scientists across America and Europe. But now activists want the six-tonne Cassini probe, currently hurtling towards Earth en route to Saturn be redirected into the Sun.

They say the robot spaceship, which has a plutonium reactor on board, could crash as it sweeps within 700 miles of Earth in August. "If control is lost during the fly-by, the craft would plunge into the atmosphere and its radioactive load could scatter widely," said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California.

He and other campaigners are pressing American and European politicians and space officials to have Cassini directed away from Earth. Some believe it should be diverted into the Sun.

The prospect of one of the most advanced space probes ever built being fried to a crisp has so alarmed the European Space Agency it has scheduled emergency meetings for scientists, civil servants and government press officers from its 14 member states (including Britain) in Frascati next week.

For two days, they will take advice on how to defend the mission; to explain the plutonium reactor and reassure the public it poses no danger.

"These probes have to carry plutonium reactors because Saturn is so far from the Sun that solar panels could not provide enough power for its instruments," said an ESA spokesman. "Cassini also has to fly close to Earth because that is the only way we can build up enough speed to get to Saturn."

The US-built Cassini was launched in October 1997 and is scheduled to reach Saturn in July 2004. It will release a European-built probe, called Huygens, which will land on Titan, a methane-soaked moon which scientists believe is like Earth four billion years ago.

To reach Saturn, the spaceship has to be flown through the solar system. It has already whipped close to Venus a manoeuvre that gained valuable momentum. In June it will fly past Venus again, passing Earth two months later. Each fly-by increases speed until it achieves the 42,000 mph needed to reach Saturn.

Previous probes have been sent on spirals across the solar system, flying close to Earth, before heading to outer planets.

But Cassini has attracted opposition, mainly because of the growing number of environmentalists, and partly because It carries the heaviest nuclear reactor ever put on an interplanetary probe.

A fractional miscalculation during the Venus fly-by two months earlier could send it plunging into our planet, it is claimed. And should 38kg of plutonium spill into the atmosphere, the effects would be calamitous, says Joe Mclntire of the Stop Cassini Earth Fly-by. "A Cassini fly-by accident could cause several. thousands of latent cancer fatalities," he said.

But NASA and European officials reject this. "There is less than a one in a million chance of an inadvertent reentry," said a NASA spokesman. And if an accident did occur, Cassini's plutonium fuel is stored in a ceramic case that would withstand atmospheric burn-up, say scientists. Cassini's launch was nearly halted by protesters who in 1997 tried, but failed, to stop it in court. As the craft heads back to Earth, they are mounting a new campaign.

This article marks a breakthrough in the media's silence of this needless and arrogant threat to life.

NoFlyby encourages you to write a letter to the editor
and keep this debate in the media going.

The Editor, The Observer
119 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3ER
Fax 0171 713 4250/4286

Our rebuttal:

1. To The Editor: (by Karl Grossman, Professor of Journalism, State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, Old Westbury, New York, U.S.A. )

The Observer has been subjected to disinformation. The article “Officials Swing Behind Spaceship” (January 10, 1999) about the scheduled Earth “fly-by” in August of the Cassini space probe and its 72.3 pounds of plutonium dioxide fuel states: “If an accident did occur, Cassini’s plutonium fuel is stored in a ceramic case that would withstand atmospheric burn-up, say scientists.”

Now this may be the public relations line of NASA. But it is completely contradicted by official U.S. government documents. For example, the “Safety Evaluation Report” on the Cassini mission done by the U.S. government’s Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel declares that “a great deal of plutonium” will be released in a “flyby” accident “because the [plutonium] aeroshells have not been designed for the high speed reentry characteristics -- 19 kilometers per second, 43,000 miles per hour -- of this fly-by maneuver.”

This report, prepared for the U.S. President’s science advisor by five U.S. government agencies -- including NASA -- continues by stating that with an accident “much of the plutonium is vaporized and over a 50-year period provides a collective dose to the world's population." It further says that “tens of thousands” of latent cancers could result if Cassini does not buzz the Earth as the planned at 496 miles but dips down into the 75-mile high atmosphere, breaks up and releases its plutonium fuel.

NASA, in its own “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission,” says that “for all the [fly-by] reentry cases studies, about 32 to 34 percent of the [plutonium] fuel…is expected to be released.” This NASA statement goes on in a chart to list “Range of Decontamination Methods” in the event of such a plutonium release including: “Demolish some or all structures” and “Relocate affected population permanently.”

It is not surprising that the Observer was misinformed. After more than a dozen years of investigating the use of nuclear power on space devices -- since breaking the story in 1986 that the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger was to involve a plutonium-fueled space probe like Cassini -- I have found that NASA often stands for “Never A Straight Answer.” Public relations often takes precedence over reality for NASA.

I have authored a book on the use of nuclear on space devices, “The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet,” and written and narrated two TV documentaries, the most recent “Nukes In Space 2: Unacceptable Risks” (premiered in the U.K. at a presentation I gave at Leicester University in November).

I also teach journalism as a Professor at the State University of New York. I recommend to my students that in reporting on environmental issues, because they so often involve matters of life-and-death, “deep journalism" be practiced. No journalism should be done superficially. But when reporting on critical environmental issues it is especially unacceptable to relate a statement of one “side” and simply juxtapose it with an uncorroborated claim of the other -- ping-pong journalism. It is necessary to probe deeply, to document claims, so as not to be fooled, not to be spun by public relations, and thus cause the public to be misled.

You may want to revisit the issue, more in-depth this time.

Karl Grossman

2. Segment of "Why the Earth Flyby Must be Omitted," a report by Earl Budin, M/D., Assoc. Clinical Prof. of Radiology, UCLA Medical Center.

Excerps follow:

.....NASA claims in various Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that there is only a one in a million chances that any problem might cause the space craft to enter our atmosphere. This seems quite unrealistic for the complex maneuvers of an EFB at 10 miles per second. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in its Cassini Earth Swingby Plan report of May 1997 lists 18 different kinds of failures which might send the space craft out of control. The first category is disruption when struck by an object in space; a new type of asteroid, just discovered this year portends the possibility of others yet undetected. The annual Perseid meteor shower is expected next August, the month of the EFB. The second category includes electrical failures, such as the short circuit which caused a Titan IV to explode on August 12. The third category includes erroneous ground commands, an unavoidable human factor. When the newly appointed head of NASA first learned of the Cassini Project he was quoted as saying that it was so risky he would have canceled it.

NASA claims in their EISs that the Plutonium containers are quite secure and that practically none of the Plutonium could become air-born in small particles if atmospheric entry did occur, and at worst it would cause only 120 people to develop fatal lung cancer. However several important errors in NASA's statements were revealed in a Safety Evaluation Report submitted in July 1997 by the Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel (SER), a group of five high level federal government officials including a NASA representative. Most shocking was the revelation that the Plutonium containers were not designed to withstand the heat of an atmospheric entry at such a high speed and that 9 kilograms of Plutonium might be released in tiny particles which could be inhaled.

In addition the SER notes that (since Plutonium emits alpha particles) a single Plutonium atom can cause lung cancer. This fact is not considered in any NASA EIS although it was determined in an experiment financed in part by NASA (reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 1997, p.3765). The SER notes that a complete burn-up of the space craft could cause several tens of thousands of fatal lung cancer, but fails to indicate that a single kilogram of Plutonium contains 200 billion trillion* [sic] Plutonium atoms and the number of fatal cancers could be very many times higher! The SER conclusions ignored this special potency of Plutonium and compare it to a cancer dose from ordinary radioactivity, which they then average among a large population such that not a single cancer results.

The SER supports NASA's prediction that the chance of the space ship entering our atmosphere is one in a million, yet recommended delaying the Cassini launch for 60 days, which they note would have decreased the risk of fatal cancers by a factor of 30 to 100 times since the speed of EFB would have been considerably less.

The study of our Universe is a worthy project, but when it puts the entire world at a significant health risk, such action should only be decided by truly independent government representatives advised by independent scientists from medical fields.

Dr. Earl Budin (

* From Avogadros's constant

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