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When 60-minute hysteria nearly brought down a NASA mission to Saturn

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute via Getty Few impediments could have been more severe. In order for a spacecraft to reach the Jovian system fast enough to finally achieve orbit around Europa, it had to launch from a powerful rocket (which NASA lacked, which limited the spacecraft to space shuttle deployment) or be absurdly light (which the required radiation armor made impossible). JPL engineers scrambled to write equations in chalk before shoving their fists against the slates in fits of desperation. Nothing for NASA was ever free … except gravity aids. Typically, the agency could compensate for the meager speeds of heavy spacecraft by taking indirect flight paths and using the planets encountered along the way to pull and push the robotic pilgrim out, in, or forward. With the laws of physics immutable, and the outstanding numbers known, NASA’s orbital dynamists could do this all day, running the numbers to launch spaceships with precision, from one planet to the next: Isaac Newton’s free propulsion. It was incomparably the best deal in space exploration. But then tabloid television journalism got involved and things got complicated. In 1997, while waiting at Cape Canaveral for takeoff, the Cassini mission was suddenly beset by political protests. Cassini carried three radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which were powered by the decay of plutonium 238. The plutonium was not of the Back to the Future variety, a disturbing drop of Scary Substance Indeed in a homemade flux capacitor, but was stored in a ceramic. shape, wrapped in iridium and caked in graphite. It could not corrode, be destroyed by heat, vaporize, disintegrate as an aerosol, or dissolve in water. It was made to withstand not only the explosion of the rocket carrying it, but even a catastrophic reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Because it couldn’t be vaporized, in a disaster situation, no one would inadvertently inhale it and develop additional superpowers or appendages. In fact, it was designed so that you could even eat the things. The human body couldn’t absorb it. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission could shake our world. But 10 days before three and a half million pounds of rocket thrust put inches between Cassini and Earth, a much smaller number (60, like in 60 minutes) nearly nailed NASA to the ground. CBS TV news magazine aired an article about the soon-to-be Saturn-ready spacecraft Steve Kroft starring in the segment. The correspondent’s opening line: “On October 13, a Titan IV rocket is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral with seventy-two pounds of deadly plutonium; enough plutonium, in theory anyway, to deliver a fatal dose to every man, woman and child on the face of the Earth multiple times. ” And it got worse from there. Cassini was an afterthought in history, and expert interviews were interspersed with comments from… non-experts, to be polite, but not very well-spoken experts, whose contributions are generous! —They included lines like, “What gives someone, including the federal government, the right to risk death or – or injury to the population just from space exploration?” The segment featured a Department of Energy plutonium expert saying flatly that even if the graphite-sealed, iridium-wrapped rocket, spacecraft, and ceramic plutonium exploded on the launch pad, it was literally impossible for the debris to do what protesters said they would. But just to keep the balance, Kroft’s collection of doomsayers outlined in lurid detail what plutonium, not in the form used by NASA, can be safely sprinkled on breakfast cereal, because again, it can be eaten. , it could do to the human body. Among the highlights: “it can lead to lung cancer” and “there could be numbers like 100,000 or more who develop lung cancer” and “if there is such an explosion, you can say goodbye to Florida.” Kroft even found a former NASA Employee (“He’s neither a scientist nor an engineer,” Kroft admitted, “but …”) to publicly lament his role in endangering lives for frivolities like space exploration. “I feel guilty, frankly,” lamented the insider penitent. To seal the deal, Kroft interposed the story with excerpts from an interview with Wes Huntress, head of NASA’s planetary program, who had presided over the successful Mars Pathfinder landing for just a few months. “This is from his own environmental impact statement,” Kroft told Huntress, the host’s tone solid but personable, his countenance harsh but eyes somehow benevolent. “I want to read you a thing or two about him.” Huntress was a pioneer in the study of interstellar clouds and one of the world’s foremost experts on planetary exploration, but it wasn’t exactly tabloid television footage, and after the cavalcade of activists arguing convincingly and without interruption, he seemed less confident in his answers. Kroft quoted: “If there is an accident, they talk, quote, ‘remove and eliminate all vegetation in contaminated areas, demolish some or all of the structures and relocate the population permanently. ‘”“ If there were such an accident, ”Huntress said, accurately but to no avail. Kroft responded, “I mean, that sounds pretty drastic … to fill the silence, which the 60 Minutes subjects interviewed always did, and he did, and he did. “Well, what they’re probably talking about mostly is the damage at the site, near the launch zone near the launch pad because th Clearly, when one of these things happens, there is a lot of damage near the launch pad. launch. ”And after Huntress danced and staggered, this guy didn’t even know what his own official Armageddon report said! – and finally swayed gracefully. From the gallows, the well-tuned doomsayers followed, explaining precisely how Life as we know it was coming to an end, and they kissed their babies tonight because our reckless quest to conquer the cosmos: Saturn! This pointless mission to a gas giant, whatever that means, will leave the mutated survivors fighting for the last of the canned goods on looted store shelves. Worse still, Cassini would strike a second blow against the peaceful people of planet Earth. If it did not explode in e The launch, it was set to follow a VVEJGA trajectory to propel its way towards Saturn: that is, two oscillations of Venus (V, V), and then it would play chicken with the Earth, and if something went wrong … (but if everything went well, from Earth [E] to Jupiter [J] for serious assistance [GA]). The United States Air Force security police form a line to thwart protesters who demonstrate against the planned launch of the Cassini nuclear-powered spacecraft in front of the security fence on October 4, 1997 at the station. from the Cape Canaveral Air Force in Florida. Cassini is a science spacecraft that will travel to Saturn on a five-year journey to orbit the planet and deploy a probe on the surface. Roberto Schmidt / AFP via Getty The Clinton administration didn’t really have time for this, but dutifully absorbed the letters and optics of the protesters clinging to the concertina-covered chain-link fences on the Cape Canaveral perimeter, while in Inside, the police lined up in bulletproof vests. and wearing riot shields he watched silently, waiting for … what? Open fire? However, NASA went ahead with its reckless rocket launch that would likely leave only roaches crawling around the Earth (or whatever some future species would call this planet), and things were fine, as they had been in dozens of previous launches. times. But the message from headquarters to those presenting future space missions: If you must launch radioactive material, do not plan trajectories that will bring the spacecraft back to Earth for gravity assist. No one needs the headache, which meant, for Karla and company, years of discussions about possible tradeoffs for the Europa Orbiter mission, as it came to be called. They analyzed other trajectories, other launch vehicles, anything to get more mass for a proper scientific return. What hardware makes it “radically tough”, impervious to radiation (but expensive), rather than just wrapping it up in “silly mass” – that is, big blocks of cheap protective shielding? What was the smallest possible scientific payload? In the end, they found a relatively happy medium: a spacecraft that could be launched directly and achieve the minimum science required to make an expedition to Europe worthwhile, and NASA loved it, and then the cost doubled, and in 1999 Ed Weiler shot him dead. From THE MISSION, or: As a Disciple of Carl Sagan, a Former Motocross Racer, a Member of Congress from the Texas Tea Party, the World’s Worst Typewriter Salesman, the Californians of the Mountains and an Anonymous Official NASA went to war with Mars, survived an insurgency on Saturn, traded blows with Washington, and stole a lunar rocket ride from Alabama to send a space robot to Jupiter in search of the second Garden of Eden in the background of An Alien Ocean Inside an Ice World Named Europa (A True Story) by David W. Brown. Copyright © 2021 by David W. Brown. From Custom House, a line of books by William Morrow / HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission. Read more at The Daily Beast. 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