When 60 Minutes’ Hysteria Nearly Shot Down a NASA Mission to Saturn | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

When 60 Minutes’ Hysteria Nearly Shot Down a NASA Mission to Saturn

In 1997, while waiting at Cape Canaveral for liftoff, the Cassini mission was beset suddenly by political protest. Cassini carried three radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which were powered by the decay of plutonium 238. The plutonium wasn’t of the Back to the Future variety—a disquieting drop of Scary Substance Indeed into a homemade flux capacitor—but rather was stored in a ceramic form, wrapped in iridium, and caked in graphite. It could not corrode, or be obliterated by heat, or vaporize, or disintegrate as an aerosol, or dissolve in water. It was made to withstand not only the explosion of the rocket carrying it, but even a catastrophic reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Because it couldn’t vaporize, in a disaster situation, no one would inadvertently breathe it in and develop superpowers or extra appendages. In fact, it was designed so that you could even eat the stuff. The human body could not absorb it.

But 10 days before three and a half million pounds of rocket thrust put inches between Cassini and Earth, a much smaller number—60, as in 60 Minutes—nearly nailed NASA to the ground. The CBS TV newsmagazine aired a feature on the soon-set-for-Saturn spacecraft, Steve Kroft starring in the segment. The correspondent’s opening line: “On October thirteenth, a Titan IV rocket is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral carrying seventy-two pounds of deadly plutonium; enough plutonium, in theory anyway, to administer a fatal dose to every man, woman and child on the face of the Earth several times over.”

And it got only worse from there. Cassini was an afterthought in the story, and interviews from experts were interspersed with comments from… nonexperts, to be kind, but very well-spoken nonexperts, whose contributions—the generous ones! —included lines such as, “What gives anybody, including the federal government, the right to risk the population’s death or—or injury just for space exploration?”