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Grandmothers Lead Protest Of Spaceship Headed For Saturn Cassini Powered By 72 Pounds Of Plutonium

Led by grandmothers and a bagpiper, anti-nuclear activists chanting “Stop Cassini, don’t be a weenie!” marched Saturday to the entrance of the Air Force station where a plutonium-powered spacecraft is to lift off next week.

An estimated 500 protesters walked the half-mile from their rallying point to the chained front gate, where dozens of police in riot gear waited on the other side.

The gate was cracked open when the crowd arrived so members of Grandmothers for Peace International, one as old as 87, could enter the station without hurting themselves. Nine women associated with the group entered in single file, each turning to wave to the cheering, whistling crowd before being led away by police to be arrested.

As soon as the gate slammed shut, protesters tossed a rug over the barbed wire atop the 8-foot chain-link fence. At least 15 climbed up a stepladder and used a rope to jump to the other side. Each was charged with trespassing.

“Be here this week!” one woman cried as she was escorted away by a policeman. She referred to the daily protests planned leading up to NASA’s Oct. 13 launch of the Cassini probe to Saturn.

“The people, united, will never be defeated,” shouted another protester, punching his fist in the air as he was hauled away. The crowd joined his chant.

The afternoon demonstration, by coincidence, was one day after the White House approved the launch of Cassini. Because of the highly radioactive plutonium, NASA needed clearance from the very top before proceeding with its $3.4 billion mission to study Saturn, its rings and moons.

“Their making their approval yesterday is very clearly intended to try to blunt the reaction from these protests, and we take it as a compliment,” said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice who organized Saturday’s protest.

Cassini will be powered by 72 pounds of plutonium, the most ever rocketed into space. It will take seven years for the spacecraft to reach Saturn, so far from the sun that solar panels as currently designed could not produce electricity for the many instruments.

“My contention is that Saturn’s not going to go anywhere,” said Jim Ream, a NASA engineer who joined the protest but did not trespass onto Air Force property. “Why don’t we wait 10 years, 20 years, 30, whatever. That scientific information will be there at such time that we develop other than nuclear means of powering a spacecraft.”

The protesters, estimated by the Brevard County sheriff’s department to number 500, listened to speakers and musicians for three hours before lining up in near 90-degree heat for the procession to Cape Canaveral Air Station.

The demonstrators carried signs reading “Cancel Cassini,” “Cassini is insane” and “NASA is not God.”

Craig and Monica Sweeney, who are from the Orlando area, pulled their 2-year-old son, Evan, in a plastic buggy. Unperturbed by all the hubbub, he sucked his bottle.

“I think it’s too dangerous,” Monica Sweeney said. “Why take a risk if there are other options?”

NASA claims there are no other options.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Energy Department also insist the mission is safe because of all the shielding around the plutonium. In the event of a launch accident and release of plutonium, the government says, any radiation exposure would be minute.

Opponents, however, claim a rocket explosion could shower toxic plutonium over the entire area and that an accident during a 1999 flyby of Earth would be even deadlier if plutonium is released into the atmosphere.

Cassini and its rocket, a Titan 4-B, were safe from the demonstrators. The launch pad is several miles from the front entrance of the Air Force station and surrounded by more fences.

Nearly 200 sheriff’s deputies, correction officers, highway patrol officers and security guards were on hand for the protest.