Subject: NASA, flush with the spirit of success, ignores the chance of failure -- full nukes ahead!

January 3rd, 2004

Dear Readers,

Tonight, the Spirit Mars mission, formerly known as MER1, landed successfully on Mars.  Prior to the landing, NASA and JPL took an exceptionally cautious line  repeatedly warning reporters of the difficulty of the mission.

In the euphoria of the post-landing press conference, it was mentioned that an awful lot of things had to go right for this to succeed.  A few minutes later, when asked about horizontal winds during the landing, the NASA scientist responding said that the natural wind on Mars and the wind created by the spacecraft just happened to both be moving in the same direction, creating a potentially hazardous situation which was alleviated by firing special rockets added fairly late in the project design.

Both of these comments, as well as the statistic we heard so often over the past few days, that only one in three Mars missions has been successful so far, point out something that should be an integral part of every scientific decision -- for NASA and all other entities.  When many things have to go right every time for the mission to succeed, the cumulative chance of failure goes up.  But, while NASA and JPL congratulated themselves on all the things that went right this time, they fail to use the same methodology when determining whether or not to use nuclear-powered or nuclear-payloaded spacecraft.  This mission contains about 5000 Curies of PU238 -- a huge amount, which looks small only when compared to, say, Cassinis 400,000+ Curies.

Similarly, here on Earth, the NRC and the nuclear industry refuse to ever consider an accident scenario where more than one thing goes wrong simultaneously, such as a terrorist attack AND an equipment failure at the same time.  Yet history shows us that such cumulative errors can happen.  Just as the winds on Mars and the winds created by the spacecraft could, just by chance, be additive, rather than canceling each other out, so too could a nuclear power plants redundant safety systems fail at the same time, or be compromised by a mechanical failure compounded by a human error.

If the price of failure is a crashed spacecraft on a distant planet, thats an unfortunate waste of resources.  If that spacecraft is nuclear-powered, or has a nuclear payload, the price of failure may be contamination of the distant planet for future explorers.  And, if the failure happens here on Earth  say during the launch of a nuclear payload or during the refueling of a commercial nuclear power plant  then it may be THIS planet thats contaminated. Thats something to consider during all this silly euphoria.


Russell Hoffman
Former Editor,
STOP CASSINI newsletter
Carlsbad, CA