4 December 2005
Maureen Rupe watched a rocket carrying a nuclear generator explode over California in 1968. Her frustration: Nobody knew about the added danger on board.
"It looked like an atom bomb had gone off," she said during a conversation among eight readers invited by FLORIDA TODAY to discuss the New Horizons mission to Pluto, set to launch Jan. 11 carrying a similar plutonium-powered generator.
"We did not know what was on it. Nobody did," she said. "It bothered me that we didn't know what was on this rocket when it blew up and whether it was harmful."
After hearing a presentation on the benefits and risks of the flight, the readers' discussion was dominated by concerns about making sure the public knows and understands the risks, and what steps to take in an accident.
Here is a sample of what they said:
A Cocoa homemaker and assistant chaplain at the county jail, Arthur is perplexed that just over a month before the planned launch, she had not heard anything about the potential -- however slim -- of a radioactive accident. "This is the first time I've even heard about this rocket going off. How are they really notifying the people that this rocket is going off? You have a number of people who do not watch television and do not listen to the radio." Moreover, Arthur has doubts about the benefits of such space missions, saying the money could be better spent to fix problems on Earth.
A retired advertising executive in Melbourne, Vaughan said knowing NASA, the military and the Department of Energy have flown 25 such generators in the past and done lots of safety tests gives him comfort. "We can assume this is not just a first shot at this effort." Vaughan said information given to the public might contribute to hysteria, with people overstating the danger. "I can just see people panicking if this is approached as a possible disaster that's pending."
The Satellite Beach resident said people want to know "what's in it for me?" on space missions, especially if they pose health risk. He worried about disaster planning, given recent hurricane response. "We had these great programs, but they were all on paper and then, all of the sudden, nobody knows how to do what and the people that are there have no experience. The only way to get experience is being involved in some sort of reactionary program to give people the actual training in how to do that."
The manager of a Viera ice cream store said the focus should be less on accidents and more on science. "I don't know if it's because I'm from a different generation, but it excites me. It sounds so interesting. What if they do discover something that could help us healthwise or find a better way to run cars? What if there is something out there that could help us?"
The Port St. John woman is doubtful about safety tests and odds handed out by the government. She says NASA worked early to brief environmental groups on the risks. She said that was good, but stressed "people do not trust the government. Whatever they are going to put out and tell you, just look at how many times" they've been wrong. She cited the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and other incidents in which government safety assurances were wrong.
The 58-year old Melbourne psychologist said it's important to tell people what they get out of space missions. "While you're blitzing the public, the content needs to not only look at the safety aspects but the advantages. It is about what's in it for me, individually. And what's in it for me in terms of my immediate family. What's in it for my community?"