Plutonium too close for comfort

By Michael R. Allen
web posted August 23, 1999

Easy breathing is now permitted; earth has not been decimated! To those living under the tyranny of prophecy, their whole lives may have to be rebuilt around something other than vague 16th Century quatrains. The prophet Nostradamus mentioned that a great "king of terror" will fall from the skies in the seventh month of 1999.

Of course, nothing sinister fell from the sky last month except more missiles on Iraq.

Some of Nostradamus's ardent followers had tried to correct his writings by allowing for August to be the end of the world as we know it. The Cassini space probe and its plutonium cargo would pass by the earth to use the gravity of the planet to shoot to Saturn. It gets too close, enters the atmosphere, and hellfire and brimstone reign on those who can survive the subsequent atmospheric holocaust.

Nothing happened when the probe passed by earlier this month. There were two earthquakes, and an eclipse had recently occurred, but Cassini glided by without much fanfare. No radio was playing R.E.M.'s "The End of the World As We Know It."

Still, what if something had happened? Useless prophecy aside, the concept of the Cassini probe is rather dangerous. This probe, designed to visit Saturn in July 2004, isn't powered by plutonium. It needs its unsafe cargo instead to power its onboard instruments.

The Cassini probe was built by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the US government's answer to a stupid question. NASA spent $3.4 billion on this probe alone, to visit a planet -- the gaseous, uninhabitable Saturn -- it has already explored before. With all this money spent, one would assume that it was possible to build a probe that did not have to carry plutonium. But asking NASA to devote its funds to useful projects is a tedious exercise.

The US government does not have a right to endanger the world's citizens. Cassini did not miss its elevation of 728 miles above the Pacific Ocean, but if it had, NASA couldn't cover up such an accident. As long as NASA is around, it should not play with anything that could -- even if only in a remote instance -- endanger the world. Exploring uninhabitable planets over and over again does not warrant reckless activity. No mission does.

What about a private sector mission? If it carried plutonium, how could it be kept from harming the earth without government regulation? First, the private sector's space projects have never been in the same facetious it's-there-we-must-explore vein as NASA's. Entrepreneurs are motivated by profit, so most of their plans are on satellite technology and -- in the most radical vision -- moon colonization.

Should a private mission wish to risk the lives of every world citizen by using radioactive fuels, it would be as dangerous as the Cassini probe. Banning the building of such a probe would constitute prior restraint, which violates the rights of the builder. One might be able to acquire radioactive materials, safely ship them, and use them on their own property without causing air or water pollution. If one can build the probe without harming the environment used by others, then what happens when he goes to launch?

The answer lies in private property rights. No one can own the earth's atmospheres, but it is entirely conceivable that a collective of property owners or cities or even states could claim the right to regulate the air space above their locations. If enough of these collective groups existed to "control" the atmosphere, any launches would have to be approved by the "owners" of the atmosphere.

The private-property system, if extended to parts of the environment like rivers and skies, could ensure less pollution and more safety -- while guaranteeing the rights of each citizen and his property.

The Cassini probe is gone now, but it should spur serious discussion on the use of radioactive fuels in the skies. Hopefully, the world will come to realize that government is not the answer for safety. Governments have launched dubious spacecraft, paid for atomic bomb development, and built defective nuclear power plants. With individuals acting unfettered to protect their rights, the world could be safer.

Then, all we would have worry about would be those bizarre prophecies.

Michael R. Allen is editor in chief of the monthly SpinTech Magazine and a contributor to many other on-line publications.

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