by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

The Galileo space probe was launched on October 19 amid controversy over its highly toxic payload of 49.25 pounds of plutonium which provides heat and electricity for its instruments. Challenged by scientific concern over the potential danger of launching pluto­nium into space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration claimed there was no substitute for plutonium as a power source on projects such as the Galileo mission to Jupi­ter.

But government-authorized studies, released under the Freedom of Information Act to investigative journalist Karl Grossman after the launch, show that scientists under con­tract to NASA regarded solar energy as a feasible alternative for Galileo and for other space probes as well. In the weeks preceding the Galileo launch, NASA stuck to its claim that there was no alternative to plutonium for these missions. In a “Safety Fact Sheet,” the agency said “Because other power alternatives are too massive or too weak … the RTG (plutonium-powered generator) is the safest, most efficient and effective power system.”

However, studies conducted for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology contradict NASA’s claims. One of the laboratory’s reports says, “Based on the current study, it appears that a Galileo Jupiter orbiting mission could be performed with a concentrated photovoltaic solar array power source without changing the mission sequence or impacting science objectives … concentrated solar arrays are a poten­tially viable alternative to RTG’s despite the difficulties posed by the Galileo mission.”

When told of the reports, U.S. Representative George Hochbrueckner (D-NY), a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA, was shocked. “NASA has been telling us over and over again that there is no alternative to plutonium – and now this. Why did we have to undertake the tremendous risk with pluto­nium in light of these reports?” he asked. “We took a big risk with Galileo and we happened to be lucky. Now we have to make sure we don’t undergo an unnecessary risk again with future probes.” In fact, future NASA missions are scheduled for 1991, 1995, and 1996. Like Galileo, these space probes are slated to be launched by a Challenger-type space shuttle and to carry plutonium.

Why did NASA deliberately conceal information from the American people? Why did NASA insist there were no alternatives to plutonium when alternatives were and are available and viable? Why did NASA lie? According to Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, “It’s because they have a hidden agenda for the RTGs: use in a future Star Wars system.”

Indeed, starting in the mid-1990s, the government plans a series of launches of nuclear devices in space for military purposes, including orbiting nuclear reactors that would provide the power for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

And while NASA lied, the media failed to put the controversial issue on the national agenda. Efforts to warn the nation of the dangers of the plutonium space probe were among the top 10 “censored” stories of 1986, 1987, and 1988. Now it appears that Galileo is just the tip of the iceberg.


SOURCE: THE NATION 72 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10011, DATE: 11/20/89



COMMENTS: For three years, in 1986, 1987, and 1988, investigative journalist Karl Gross­man tried to alert the public to the potential dangers of launching a highly toxic payload of plutonium into space. His efforts, which appeared in small circulation publications such as The Nation, were cited among the top ten “censored” stories of each of those years. Throughout that period NASA rejected Grossman’s charges saying there was no danger but, in any event, there was no substitute for plutonium as a power source on the proposed missions. Grossman’s 1989 article, based on government documents released to him under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that NASA was lying and that there was an alternative power source which could have been used. Like his earlier articles, Grossman’s 1989 effort went ignored by the national news media. He notes that despite the revealing new documentation obtained by FOIA, “again there was silence from the mainstream media.” Grossman suggests that one of the reasons for the media’s failure to cover the space plutonium issue critically is that the U.S. space program, before and after the Chal­lenger disaster, has been “treated as a sacred cow by most of the U.S. media.” Time will tell whether the latest NASA debacles with the Hubble space telescope, fuel leaks in the shuttle fleet, and the grounding of veteran shuttle commanders for breaking flight safety rules, cause the media to reconsider its treatment of this “sacred cow.”