3. Nomination for the “Ten Best Censored Stories of 1988”

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set the chance of a shuttle crash before the Challenger disaster at one in 100,000. It turned out that one in 25 launches could end in tragedy.

Yet despite the January 28, 1986, Challenger disaster, NASA plants to launch a shuttle on October 12, 1989, that will carry enough radioactive plutonium to kill every person on earth. Nearly 50 pounds of plutonium is to be used in the space probe which will explore the atmosphere of Jupiter in the proposed “Galileo” mission. NASA insists that the risks of carrying the plutonium payload is minimal and that the possible scientific gains are substantial.

But many scientists who are experts in the field of radioactivity are apprehensive. They see three possible disaster scenarios — a launch-pad explosion in which the shuttle’s liquid fuel would be ignited and the plutonium released, would contaminate Cape Canaveral and environs; a Challenger-like explosion in the upper atmosphere would dispense the poisonous plutonium over a broader area; And any serious space mishap within the Earth’s 22,000-mile gravitational pull could spread the uranium derivative even more widely over the earth. The Project Galileo space probe will be “slingshot” around Venus and then twice around the earth to increase its momentum and allow it to reach the remote Jupiter. In the second Earth-turn, the plutonium­-bearing probe will be flying only 277 miles overhead.

Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at UC Berkeley, and a member of the WWII “Manhattan Project,” says “If it gets dispersed over Florida, kiss Florida good-bye,” and calls the plutonium space probe notion “a crazy idea — unless shuttle launches are 100 percent perfect.”

While Project Galileo was nominated as an overlooked issue in both 1986 and 1987, critics still feel that it hasn’t received the press attention it deserves.

In 1988, Dennis Bernstein proposed an article to Newsday on censorship in television news built around Project Galileo and its plutonium payload. Newsday liked the idea and put it into development. Bernstein, who had previously written a dozen articles for Newsday, conducted 40 interviews with media critics and journalists, including 15 network news producers and executives, and submitted his piece focusing on journalists’ self-censorship.

According to Bernstein, the article was set to run as a cover story on August 28, 1988, but days before that date the story was killed. The editor who killed the story said the newspeople interviewed were only talking about their feelings and there were no hard facts, adding “Let’s face it, publishing in mainstream media is different than publishing in the alternative press.”

EXTRA!, the newsletter of  FAIR, subsequently ran Bernstein’s article, revealing how informed at least one network news executive was about the Galileo mission and its plutonium payload.

“You know this kind of paranoia masquerading as journalism really doesn’t interest me,” said Reuven Frank, the former president of NBC News. “I don’t believe (Galileo) exists. If there was a plan to do that it would be reported.”

SOURCES:      THE LONG ISLAND MONTHLY, October 1988, The Fire Next Time,” by Karl Grossman, pp 71+; EXTRA!, Sept/Oct 1988, “Newsday Spikes Article on C*****ship,” by Dennis Bernstein, pp 1, 8, 9.