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Racism Meets Spacism

It's Only South America Getting Dosed with Plutonium

by Karl Grossman

NASA: We'll play
Russian roulette
with Earth this fall!

Although you'd never know it from most US media, that Russian Mars space probe carrying nearly a half-pound of deadly plutonium did not fall "harmlessly" into the sea in November 1996. It crashed into South America, breaking up into a fireball as it came down, according to eyewitnesses.

When President Bill Clinton called Australian Prime Minister John Howard on November 17, advising him that the US Space Command projected the wayward probe would be coming down on eastern or central Australia, there was a brief period of intense media attention. "Mars probe expected to fall within hours," CNN was reporting (11/17/96). "Russian Space Probe Falls back to Earth," heralded the front page of the New York Times (11/18/96). Then came the announcement from the US Space Command and Russia that the probe landed far further east, in the Pacific Ocean west of South America.

"Errant Russian Spacecraft Crashes Harmlessly After Scaring Australia," was the headline in the Washington Post (11/18/96). "Harmlessly" was the operative word. As the Associated Press dispatch began (11/18/96): "News that a Russian Mars probe carrying plutonium was plummeting toward Earth put Australian military and civil defense teams on high alert and sent Aussie gamblers scrambling to predict where it would land. But all bets were off today when the Mars 96 spacecraft overshot Australia and plunked harmlessly into the South Pacific near Easter Island."

The story, it would seem, was over. Then, on November 29, came a new announcement from the US Space Command: The Russian probe did not come down in the ocean, as previously announced, but along a 200-mile swath of Chile and Bolivia.

That announcement confirmed the accounts of eyewitnesses like John Van der Brink, recently retired from the European Southern Observatory in Chile, who said he "had no illusions it was anything other than a piece of space debris [with] sparkling bits coming off the back of it. This was an extraordinarily spectacular event." (His observations were reported by David Chandler of the Boston Globe-12 /5 /96- one of the very, very few US media institutions that stayed on the story after Australia was safe).

Luis Barrera, a physicist at the Astronomy Institute at the Universidad Catolica del Norte in Chile, also received eyewitness accounts of a fireball: "The news is bad," he told the Christian Science Monitor's Chris Bryson (12/16/96). "I think it vaporized."

Plutonium has long been described by scientists as the most toxic substance known. As Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has emphasized, a pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically give a fatal dose of lung cancer to every person on Earth. Further, the isotope used in space probes, plutonium-238, is 280 times more radioactive than the more common plutonium-239 found in atomic bombs and nuclear waste.

Where were the media that were so up on the matter when it looked like this substance would be scattered over Australia? Nowhere. The Boston Globe's Chandler commented to me that he was "surprised" to find, as he filed his stories, that virtually all other major US media weren't reporting the issue. A Nexis search in mid-December reflected only a few articles on the probe falling on South America-almost all from South American publications. When the Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed that it solicited from me on the crash (12/8/96), "Perspectives" editor Michael Adams expressed amazement that the probe's disintegrating over a populated continent had not been covered in major papers. The New York Times relegated the fall of the probe on South America to a five-paragraph Reuters dispatch under "World News Briefs" deep inside its December 14, 1996 edition.

As Manuel Baquedano, director of the Institute for Ecological Policy in Chile, asked in a piece in the Chilean newspaper Diario la Epoca (12/1/96), "Are the lives of Australians worth more?"

The blackout had to do with racism-and with space boosterism. Bruce Gagnon, co-coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, sought to hold a press conference in front of NASA's Kennedy Space Center to warn that the Russian space probe accident was, at the least, an important wake-up call in the face of an expanding US program to deploy nuclear power in space. In faxes to media as well as notices he distributed to "tons of media" arriving for a shuttle launch, Gagnon noted that NASA intends to launch the Cassini space probe in October 1997 with 72 pounds of plutonium, 150 times more than the Russian space probe carried.

Gagnon's press kit contained information on the danger NASA acknowledges both with the launch of Cassini and with NASA's plan to have the probe come hurtling back at Earth in 1999. NASA calls it a "flyby," a "slingshot maneuver" to have Cassini sent back towards Earth from space at 42,000 mph coming as close as 312 miles and whipping around Earth. The Earth's gravity is supposed to give Cassini the additional velocity so it can reach Saturn. In the press kit were pages from NASA's "Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission" acknowledging that if Cassini makes an "inadvertent reentry" into the Earth's atmosphere during the "flyby" and breaks up, dispersing its plutonium, "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population... could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."

Gagnon suspected few reporters might be coming to the press conference because "you could just see the look on their faces when I gave them the material: that this was a space controversy and 'I don't want to touch that.' A lot of these space reporters see themselves as privileged spectators, space boosters, cheerleaders." Only two reporters showed up.

Meanwhile, Caldicott was pressing the New York Times to publish an op-ed on the dangers of the Cassini mission that she had submitted in March 1996. According to Caldicott, a Times editor who initially read the piece told her that he "didn't know how dangerous plutonium was," and said the paper would publish the article. It didn't, though Times editors claimed, when Caldicott checked with them, that they were still "considering" it. With the crash of the Russian Mars space probe, she called the Times, saying this was a good time for the piece to appear. A few days later, a Times editor finally told her the op-ed piece was dead: "There's no way to get people to publish it here."

This article appeared in Extra! Update (February 1997).

To subscribe to Extra!/Extra! Update, call 800-847-3993.

  Karl Grossman's excellent video, Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, is available from EnviroVideo at 1-800-ECO-TV-46.  

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