There was a near-miss involving a nuclear disaster and a space shuttle. The ill-fated Challenger's next mission in 1986 was to loft a plutonium-powered space probe.
The NASA Environmental Impact Statement includes comments from people and organizations some highly critical of a plutonium-powered Mars Science Laboratory Mission.
Leah Karpen of Asheville, North Carolina says: "Every expansion of plutonium research, development and transportation of this deadly material increases the risk of nuclear accident or theft. In addition, plutonium production is expensive and diverts resources from the more important social needs of our society today, and in the future." She urges NASA "to reconsider the use of nuclear" and go with solar instead.
Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Idaho-based Snake River Alliance, calls on NASA and the Department of Energy to "take this opportunity to move space exploration in a sustainable direction with regard to power. Using solar rather than nuclear to power the Mars Science Laboratory Mission would keep the U.S. safe, advance energy technologies that are cleaner and more secure, be more fiscally responsible, and set a responsible example to other countries as they make decisions about their energy future."
Ace Hoffman of Carlsbad, California speaks of "today's nuclear NASA" and a "closed society of dangerous, closed-minded "scientists' who are hoodwinking the American public and who are guilty of premeditated random murder." He adds: "The media has a duty to learn the truth rather than parrot NASA's blanketly-false assertions."
NASA, in response to the criticisms, repeatedly states in the document: "NASA and the DOE take very seriously the possibility that an action they take could potentially result in harm to humans or the environment. Therefore, both agencies maintain vigorous processes to reduce the potential for such events."
Involved in challenging the mission is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Maine-based organization, says that " NASA sadly appears committed to maintaining their dangerous alliance with the nuclear industry. Both entities view space as a new market for the deadly plutonium fuel." Says Gagnon: "The taxpayers are being asked once again to pay for nuclear missions that could endanger the life of all the people on the planet"Have we not learned anything from Chernobyl and Fukushima? We don't need to be launching nukes into space. It's not a gamble we can afford to take."
With the return of Atlantis and end of the shuttle program, there are concerns about this being the "end" of the U.S. space program.
An accident if NASA continues to insist on mixing atomic energy and space--a nuclear disaster overhead--that, indeed, could end the space program..
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space's Program's Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (http://www.envirovideo.com).