Nation/World

Controversial Launch Of Cassini Due Spacecraft To Saturn Has Nuke Power Plant

Nearly all the protesters left town: They didn’t want to be around if the rocket carrying NASA’s Cassini spacecraft blew up and 72 pounds of highly radioactive, highly carcinogenic plutonium rained down.

The engineers and scientists who devoted years to the project, on the other hand, brought their families to witness what they considered to be a historical, and safe, event: launch of the first spacecraft designed to orbit the ringed planet Saturn.

The moment of truth - liftoff of the mammoth Titan 4-B rocket with Cassini - was scheduled for the predawn hours today.

“I invited everyone I love to the launch,” said Richard Spehalski, program manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Among the more than 30 Spehalski family members gathered at Cape Canaveral: his two granddaughters, ages 6 months and 4 years.

The Energy Department’s Beverly Cook, who is in charge of Cassini’s nuclear power load, was joined by her husband and 13-year-old daughter. “I would not have my daughter standing here if I had any qualms about it,” she said.

With just hours remaining before the scheduled launch of Cassini on an 11-year, $3.4 billion mission to explore Saturn, its rings and moons, the grassy field normally used by anti-Cassini protesters near the Cape Canaveral Air Station was empty Sunday.

In an unusual twist, two men from Fort Lauderdale sat along the road leading into the Air Force station holding pro-Cassini signs. They said they were tired of all the fuss and wanted to show their support.

Across the road, just outside the station gate, Kevin Marsh staged a one-man protest. His sign read: “Cancel Cassini, no nukes in space.”

“These people who had this rally organized throughout the last week, don’t get me wrong, they did OK, they said their mind,” said Marsh, who flew in from northern California and intended to stay through launch. “But they’re like 9-to-5 demonstrators, you know, yuppie protesters … they’re blowing out of here.”

In Washington, about 70 Cassini opponents gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the White House, including Art Laffin, who was arrested while protesting at Cape Canaveral Air Station on Oct. 4. “I don’t see it as a defeat but as an ongoing struggle,” Laffin said of the inevitable launch.

Beverly Red also fled after taking part in the Oct. 4 demonstration. But before returning to Vermont she warned: “When it’s going to be most dangerous is the flyby in 1999.”

Cassini will swoop within 500 miles of Earth in August 1999, after having swung past Venus twice for gravity-assisted speed. The spacecraft won’t reach Saturn until 2004; The plutonium, the most ever loaded onto a U.S. probe, is needed to power all the instruments so far from the sun.

Red and other Cassini foes worry that if the spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere during the Earth flyby, plutonium could be released and hundreds of thousands could die of cancer.

The chance of such a re-entry and plutonium release, according to government statistics, is less than 1-in-1 million. And if it did happen, the number of cancer deaths worldwide would increase by 120, the Energy Department’s Cook said.

Those same statistics put the chance of a plutonium release in a launch accident at 1-in-1,400 during the first 3-1/2 minutes of flight and 1-in-476 during the rest of ascent. But in such circumstances, officials said, there would be no way for plutonium to be inhaled: it’s in the form of hardened ceramic pellets designed to shatter into chunks on impact.

To prove that in the event of an accident, NASA and the Energy Department had 34 radiation-monitoring teams stationed throughout Brevard and neighboring counties for the launch.

“There’s not a risk to the public,” Cook insisted, “even if there is an accident.”



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