The Cassini space probe was launched 20 years ago on a mission to learn about Saturn. Illustration: NASA

An element in an issue I got involved with more than 30 years ago — the use of nuclear power in space — will come to a climax next month. That’s when the Cassini space probe carrying more plutonium than ever used on a space device will be crashed by NASA into Saturn.

In early 1985 I learned from a federal government newsletter that the Challenger shuttle was to loft a plutonium-fueled space probe on its May 1986 mission and I used the Freedom of Information Law to try to get information about the consequences of an accident. I met a stone wall, finally getting documents — which insisted that a catastrophic shuttle accident was a 1-in-100,000 chance — in late 1985. With the Challenger disaster in January 1986, I broke the story of its next nuclear mission in The Nation magazine. (NASA soon changed the odds of a catastrophic shuttle accident to 1-in-76).

I authored a book, “The Wrong Stuff,” and wrote and hosted several TV documentaries about the use of nuclear power in space, including the accidents that have happened, and the military connection. The U.S. “Star Wars,” program, I found, was predicated on orbiting battle platforms using on-board nuclear reactors or “super” plutonium systems providing the energy for hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons. A second book was “Weapons in Space.”

On Sept. 15, the Cassini space probe and its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel (280 times more radioactive than the Plutonum-239 used in atomic bombs) is to be crashed into Saturn.

Cassini was launched 20 years ago. The $3.27 billion mission has constituted a huge risk from its onset. It was launched on a Titan IV rocket despite several Titan IV rockets having blown up on launch.

At a demonstration two weeks earlier in front of the fence surrounding the pad at Cape Canaveral from which Cassini was to be launched, noted writer and TV commentator on science, Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, warned of widespread regional damage if this Titan IV lofting Cassini exploded on launch. Winds could carry the plutonium “into Disney World, Universal City, into the citrus industry and destroy the economy of central Florida,” said Dr. Kaku (who appears in all my TV documentaries.)

Four months before at another demonstration at the same site, Allan Kohn, a former career official of the NASA, the emergency preparedness officer at the Kennedy Space Center (and also figuring in my work), said of NASA’s claim that the plutonium system was “indestructible,” that it was “indestructible just like the Titanic was unsinkable….It’s time to put a stop to their freedom to threaten the lives of people here on Earth.”

Indeed, on an Earth “flyby” by Cassini done in 1999, it wouldn’t have been a regional disaster but a global catastrophe if an accident occurred. Cassini didn’t have the propulsion power to get directly from Earth to Saturn, so NASA had it hurtle back to Earth in a “slingshot maneuver” or “flyby” — to use Earth’s gravity to increase its velocity. The plutonium has been used to generate electricity—745 watts—to run the probe’s instruments. It has had nothing to do with propulsion.

NASA had Cassini come hurtling back at Earth at 42,300 miles per hour and skim over the Earth’s atmosphere at 727 miles high. If there were a rocket misfire or miscalculation and the probe made what NASA in its “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission” called an “inadvertent reentry,” it could have fallen into Earth’s atmosphere, disintegrating, and releasing plutonium. Then, said NASA in its statement, “Approximately 7 to 8 billion world population at a time … could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure.”

The worst accident involving space nuclear power occurred in 1964 when a satellite powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium system failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, breaking apart and releasing its 2.1 pounds of Plutonium-238 which dispersed all over the planet.
According to the late Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, that accident contributed substantially to global lung cancer rates.

Cassini finally reached Saturn and took excellent pictures and provided scientific information about Saturn, its rings and moons. NASA is crashing Cassini into Saturn “to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there,” reported The New York Times in a front-page story earlier this year which didn’t mention plutonium at all.

My journalism on the issue has also included investigating the availability of alternatives to nuclear power in space. NASA insisted for years that nuclear power is necessary for missions beyond the orbit of Mars — which turns out to be incorrect. On Independence Day 2016, NASA’s solar-energized space probe Juno arrived at Jupiter. Launched from Cape Canaveral in 2011, it flew nearly two billion miles to reach Jupiter, and although sunlight at Jupiter is just four percent of what it is on Earth, Juno’s solar panels were able to harvest sufficient power.

In space, as on Earth, solar energy works.

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Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl