After a safe and spectacular blastoff Wednesday morning, the Cassini space probe and its 72 pounds of deadly plutonium are now hurtling ever farther from Earth on a roundabout journey to Saturn.
Just one problem: That roundabout journey carries the thing back around Earth in about two years. At 42,300 mph. Within 500 miles of our planet.
NASA says there’s only a 1-in-1-million chance of an accident during that close encounter. Antinuclear activists say the chances are much higher and hundreds of thousands of people could contract cancer and die prematurely.
It’s still not over: Even a benign launch cannot end this controversy.
“The public should be more concerned about safety during the 1999 flyby than during the launch,” said Paul Scudder, a chemistry professor at New College in Sarasota, Fla., and a member of the Sierra Club, a nationwide environmental group with 20,000 members in Florida.
He said the plutonium aboard Cassini could vaporize and be inhaled if the probe crashes into the atmosphere and Earth itself.
Nonsense, said Richard Stoller, a NASA engineer who helped design Cassini.
“We’re never in a position where if something went wrong, we would hit the Earth,” Stoller said. “We want to assure everybody that, regardless of the stories they’ve heard, the spacecraft is safe.”
This much is known: The first phase of Cassini’s 11-year mission to reach and explore Saturn unfolded exactly as planned and without any untoward incidents.
Blastoff from Launch Pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Station came precisely on schedule at 4:43 a.m. Wednesday after a perfect final countdown. The powerful Titan IV rocket rose straight and true, illuminating the pre-dawn darkness with bright fluorescent light.
“It’s beautiful,” said Charles Kohlhase, a Cassini scientist. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this. On to Saturn.”
Throughout central Florida, thousands of people gathered to watch the launch. Some set aside their concerns over Cassini’s radioactive fuel; others never had any concern.
“Safety did go through my mind, but there’s a risk in crossing the road,” said John Hodges, 35, of Baltimore, one of about 500 people who assembled at Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral, 11 miles from the launch pad. “I grew up in the space era. I wanted to see this.”
Not everyone did. About 20 protesters demonstrated outside the air station, some shouting, “Don’t launch! Don’t launch!” as cars carried military and civilian workers inside.
Forty-three minutes after liftoff, the Cassini probe separated from the rocket and embarked on its 2.2 billion-mile trek through space. Engineers in Mission Control applauded, hugged, high-fived - their work over for now.
If all goes well, Cassini will arrive at Saturn on July 1, 2004, and begin a four-year study of the planet, its rings and its moons.
“It’s a very audacious thing to contemplate, to go to Saturn and to orbit it,” said Wesley Huntress, NASA’s associate administrator for science.
Many would agree with use of the word “audacious,” though not in the sense meant by Huntress. The $3.4 billion mission has aroused controversy throughout the world, and particularly in Florida.
Cassini is powered by 72.3 pounds of plutonium-238, highly radioactive and toxic, one of the most deadly substances on earth. Just one millionth of a gram - an invisible particle - causes lung or bone cancer if inhaled or otherwise introduced into the body.
So Cassini’s safe departure brought relief to many of the region’s two million residents.
NASA and other federal agencies mounted an active public relations campaign in defense of the mission - and also mustered a large team of radiation and disaster-response experts, just in case.
Armed with Geiger counters, 41 squads of radiation monitoring specialists took positions in the area. Hospital emergency rooms stood on alert to handle patients complaining of real or imagined radiation sickness. Local police, fire fighters and school officials mapped contingency plans.
As it turned out, none of the preparations proved necessary. But opponents still worry.
Bruce Gagnon, president of the Coalition for Peace and Justice, said the mission was part of a government plan to prepare the public for an ambitious program to “colonize” space through nuclear missions.
“Just as Columbus sailed to discover a new world, NASA and the nuclear industry view outer space as a new market,” he said.
Richard Spehalski, a NASA scientist, dismissed such talk. He said missions like Cassini use nuclear power simply because the probes travel too far from the sun to employ solar power. Other technologies are under study, he said, but “there’s no technology on the horizon that has promise to produce power in outer space.”