January 9th, 2004

Dear Ms Applebaum,

Speaking of radiation, as you do in your article (shown below), I have enclosed a letter I had published in one of my local papers yesterday.  I hope you will find it interesting.  I also hope that you will visit some of the following web sites I've created, and help "tie together" the whole nuclear web, which includes NASA's nuclear space missions (including Spirit), our nuclear power plants, nuclear aircraft carriers, the use of Depleted Uranium, and many other nuclear nightmares.


Russell Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Editor, STOP CASSINI newsletter
Carlsbad, CA

or try:

STOP CASSINI web site:

Internet Glossary of Nuclear Terminology / "The Demon Hot Atom":

List of every nuclear power plant in America, with history, activist orgs, specs, etc.:

List of ~300 books and videos about nuclear issues in my collection (donations welcome!):

Learn about The Effects of Nuclear War here:


(Letters section of the January 8th, 2004 San Diego Union Tribune)

Don't get so euphoric about this Mars landing

The Spirit Mars mission landed successfully on Mars. Prior to the landing, NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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, a NASA scientist responded 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 that 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 5,000 Curies of PU238 a huge amount. Similarly, here on Earth, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry refuse to ever consider an accident scenario in which 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 plant's 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, that's 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 that's contaminated. That's something to consider during all this silly euphoria.



Mission to Nowhere
By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, January 7, 2004; Page A21

The first color pictures from the NASA space probe expedition to Mars have now been published. They look like -- well, they look like pictures of a lifeless, distant planet. They show blank, empty landscapes. They show craters and boulders. They show red sand. Death Valley, the most desolate of American deserts, at least contains strange cacti, vicious scorpions, the odd oasis. Mars has far less than that. Not only does the planet have no life, it has no air, no water, no warmth. The temperature on the Martian surface hardly rises much above zero degrees Fahrenheit, and can drop several hundred degrees below that.   

Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, isn't the kind of place where you'd want to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there's the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut traveling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body. "Space is not 'Star Trek,' " said one NASA scientist, "but the public certainly doesn't understand that."

No, the public does not understand that. And no, not all scientists, or all politicians, are trying terribly hard to explain it either. Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner, that a manned Mars mission is next, that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible. One actual "Star Trek" actor, Robert Picardo, the ship's holographic doctor, enthused this week that "we really should have a timetable to send a man to Mars. . . . Mars should be part of our travel plans." Naive, perhaps, but fundamentally not much different from President Bush's grandiloquent words after the Columbia disaster: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."

But why should it go on? Or at least why should the human travel part of it go on? Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak. Also somehow played down is the fact that the search for "life" on Mars -- proof, as the enthusiasts have it, that we are "not alone" in the universe -- is not a search for sentient beings but rather a search for evidence that billions of years ago there might possibly have been a few microbes. It's hard to see how that sort of information is going to heal our cosmic loneliness, let alone lead to the construction of condo units on Mars.

None of which is to say that it isn't interesting or important for NASA to send robotic probes to other planets. It's interesting in the way that the exploration of the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is interesting, or important in the way that the study of obscure dead languages is important. Like space exploration, these are inspiring human pursuits. Like space exploration, they nevertheless have very few practical applications.

But space exploration isn't treated the way other purely academic pursuits are treated. For one, the scientists doing it have perverse incentives. Their most dangerous missions -- the ones involving human beings -- produce the fewest research results, yet receive the most attention, applause and funding. Their most productive missions -- the ones involving robots -- inspire interest largely because the public illogically believes they will lead to more manned space travel.

Worse, there is always the risk that yet another politician will seize on the idea of "sending a man to Mars," or "building a permanent manned station on the moon" as a way of sounding far-sighted or futuristic or even patriotic. President Bush is allegedly considering a new expansion of manned space travel. The Chinese are embarking on their own manned space program, since sending a man to the moon is de rigueur for would-be superpowers. The result, inevitably, will be billions of misspent dollars, more lethal crashes -- and a lot more misguided rhetoric about the "inspiration of discovery," as if discoveries can only be made with human hands.